If We Build It, Will They Come (and Pay for It)?

In the third of the occasionally to press series of guest columns in support of the business park, City of Northfield Economic Development Director Jody Gunderson shares his vision for Northfield’s economic future. He begins the piece by saying that the EDA has a two-prong approach to economic development, supporting our existing business districts while creating a new one.

Jody largely dismisses downtown as consisting of a few small retail shops. Downtown has always historically been and continues to be, at least for right now, Northfield’s central business district. While about a quarter of the downtown busineses are retailers, including four banks, over half of the businesses are office users. These office users include architects, engineers, investment firms, designers, publishers, health-care providers, and several software developers.

In fact, many prominent economic development experts would characterize these office users as the emerging American economy. Once called knowledge workers, more recently tagged the creative class, these businesses use few resource besides their brains to generate economic vitality. These people are attracted to our historic downtown, with its offering of restaurants and retailers, our wild an scenic rivers, and our excellent public schools. When asked, they also generally mention the many options in our arts, culture and recreation.

Jody then moves on to the second prong of the EDA’s work, the Master Plan for the 530-acre annexation northwest of the hospital. Although he notes that “only time and the market place will tell” if the business park will succeed, he tells us that several developer have made positive comments about the plan. I guess I’d say that only time, the market, and any return on the $29.4 million in infrastructure will tell if the business park has a chance of success.

Then he says we should decide what kind of businesses we should try to recruit for the business park. Jody advocates a focus on manufacturing companies, noting that this type of business typically generates more jobs than a retail business.

I applaud Jody’s desire to attract manufacturing businesses. This seems to be an underserved area of the Northfield economy, at least when compared to Faribault and Lakeville. In fact, with the Master Plan showing Phase 1 as mostly retail and Phase 2 as mostly housing, I had started to wonder what was really driving this project.

However, as Jody noted earlier in the piece, the market plays a key role in determining the success or failure of even the best laid master plan. I just don’t see how Northfield will succeed in the competitive market for manufacturing businesses.

I’m no highly-paid professional, but it seems to me that Faribault and Lakeville have a few advantages over Northfield in attracting manufacturing businesses. Both these other communities have a substantial base of manufacturing companies, the workforce to support these types of businesses, a much better location on the interstate highway, and a lower cost of land.

If I were a leader of Northfield, with power and resources, I would be investing in the first prong of the EDA’s economic development strategy, our existing business districts. In my opinion, $29.4 million is too much to place on a single bet, especially one where the odds seemed stacked against success.

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