Learning From Other Communities

Another week, another road trip.

Economic Development Manager Charlene Coulombe-Fiore and the EDA facilitated a field trip to Chaska, MN to talk with their City Administrator and other staff in charge of planning and development. Riding in a Care-Tenders van packed to maximum capacity were EDA members Rick Estenson, Dave Van Wylen, Victor Summa, Marty Benson; City Councilors Jim Pokorney and Scott Davis; Planning Commission members Ron Griffith and myself; and City staff Brian O’Connell, Joel Walinski, Charlene Coulombe-Fiore plus Kathy Felbrugge from the Northfield Chamber. Charlene prepared a comparison of the two communities, based on demographic and economic data, for our review before the trip.

There are many similarities between Northfield and Chaska in terms of size, history, relationship to the metro area, and other factors, as the above comparison demonstrates. There are significant differences, too, but I was interested in having the discussion because Chaska has managed to keep a consistent vision and approach to both planning and economic development for more than a decade, and it shows.

We met with Dave Pokorney, Chaska’s City Administrator/Economic Development Coordinator (no, it’s no coincidence – he’s Jim Pokorney’s brother), Assistant Economic Development Coordinator Matthew Podhradsky, and Kevin Ringwald, Director of Planning & Development. Matt gave us a presentation entitled “Chaska: Past, Present, and Future” as an overview of some of the issues we’d be discussing, then took us on a tour of parts of Chaska (with an emphasis on commercial/industrial developments). During the visit, several things made an impression on me. Some of these things were factual, some were common sense, some were great strategies that we could certainly modify and incorporate into our own approaches to planning and economic development in Northfield.

Interestingly, a significant part of Chaska’s current success and positioning is due to the pointy-headed intellectuals who spearheaded the experimental “New Town” project in nearby Jonathan, MN (and other communities) back in the 60s. Though the experiment failed economically, it provided some interesting benefits, along with a legacy demonstrating the benefits of long-term strategic planning. One of the benefits was that Chaska inherited millions of dollars’ worth of federally-funded infrastructure when the plug was pulled on the Jonathan experiment. Taking advantage of this existing infrastructure was partly responsible for the fact that Chaska filled its industrial parks before Chanhassen and Eden Prairie did, even though Chaska is further from the metropolitan core.

Chaska has had only two mayors in the past 25 years; one of those (a former 3M executive) served for 18 of those years. They have a 5-member City Council and someone guesstimated that they’d had maybe 20 different councilpersons in the past two decades. Chaska has a Strategic Plan that they update every year; they update their Comprehensive Plan about every ten years. Either Matt or Kevin (I don’t recall which) said that the updates were not terribly difficult, because the mission and vision has remained consistent over time.

Matt commented that his experience in Chaska has been very different from his experience in other cities because the mission and goals are so clearly defined. It was apparent to me that, unlike in Northfield, both city officials and city staff use the same set of “filters” to determine whether a particular type or timing of development is right for their city. He said that a community’s ability to answer the question, “What do you want to be?” helps avoid the “temptation to focus on all the things you could get rather than what you want or need to get”.

Chaska’s strategic goals provide clear direction to both city officials and city staff when it comes to decision-making. Chaska’s stated mission is to be “the best small town in Minnesota”, and Council decisions are directly tied to the answer to the question, “How does this make us a better small town?”. Matt, Kevin, and Dave all acknowledged that as direction and policies were clear, staff had practically no problem in having their decisions backed by council vote when the time came; this has empowered them in negotiating with developers.

One of Chaska’s five core strategies is to “Plan orderly community development” (encompassing both commercial and residential). Kevin said, “You can either sit in the bus, or you can drive the bus” to illustrate the difference between what might be called the reactive vs. proactive approach to planning and development.

I especially liked Chaska’s philosophy? formula? for balancing commercial and residential growth. Since they want to be a “live-work community”, one of the council’s goals is to develop “more jobs than households.” We heard that phrase several times over the course of the afternoon.

In terms of economic development, Chaska has some distinctives that set them apart from other communities in the area. 1) Incentives, like their TIF assistance policy, are based on a formula and applied consistently to any and all qualified projects. There’s no risk of political fallout because one company got incentives that the next (or previous) one didn’t. 2) Their permitting and approval process is streamlined, consistent, and predictable. They’ve been able to turn that into a competitive advantage because that’s not the case in most places. City Administrator Dave Pokorney said that “obviously”, you have to have community conversations about growth and development BEFORE companies move in.

Chaska places a lot of emphasis on “affordable” or workforce housing, along with some great examples. They have correctly made the correlation between workforce housing and business retention to provide a clear economic argument for why the city should “interfere” with the ostensibly free market approach to housing and residential development.

I’m not saying that I want Northfield to be like Chaska; I saw many things I’d like to see Northfield do differently if we do them at all. Chaska has certain advantages we don’t. The abandoned infrastructure from the Jonathan project was millions of dollars the City didn’t have to spend. Chaska, in Carver County, is part of the 7-county metro area and benefits from the Metropolitan Council’s handling of sewer, wastewater, etc. so many of their costs are lower. Chaska is also a county seat, which is why they have so many government employees.

Northfield has a different set of strengths and weaknesses, but there are still many things we can glean from Chaska’s history and experience. The unified approach of the mayor, city council, and staff; their guiding mission along with values they’ve brilliantly distilled into applicable strategies, is something we definitely need. (They also have a public utility and lots of fiber for broadband, but that’s another post.)

RoadiesI hope we get comments from others who were also on the trip. What stood out to you? Anything in particular make a impact on your thinking?


  1. I wasn’t on the trip, so I thank you, Tracy, for the detailed analysis. Did you see the Chaska Community Center? I have been there several times because I have a good friend who plays in the pit orchestra for theater performances there. Yes, the community center has a theater–and a couple skating rinks, a beautiful pool (or water park, I should say), basketball, volleyball and racquetball courts… Sorry, I can’t go on. I get choked up just thinking about that bounty in one place.

    March 26, 2008
  2. Jane McWilliams said:

    Thanks, Tracy, for this report. It reminded of the visit a group from Northfield 15 or so years ago when we were contemplating building a community center. We were blown away by theirs. I’ve just looked at their web site and see it seems to have been expanded since then and that LOTS goes on there. Take a look.

    Do I remember correctly that Chaska has its own utility? If so, how does this affect the city’s budget?

    March 26, 2008
  3. Rick Estenson said:

    Thanks for posting our trip Tracy.
    I was very impressed with the consistent message we received from the individuals at Chaska that met with us and then gave us a tour of the city. While it is likely we will all step back and say “they are quite different from us in what they had to offer to developers and companies and the timing of when they offered it”, the real lesson I took away was about the importance of leadership, vision and consistency. They had many of the painful discussions and disagreements that we go through in making decisions about what criteria and standards we expect but once determined, the leaders supported the workers in the city and in the community and then stood behind and took the heat believing they had listened and then executed on the best plan for the city. Making it easy to manuever thru the city and public process was another message that we all took to heart and should learn more specifics about the how to emulate here. Finally, the consistency of application to existing businesses that wished to grow along with the first business to join the city to the last business to join the city with the aid of a simplistic formula most people could easily calculate was a fascinating approach that they believed was critical to their success and helped them get 5-0 votes at city council almost all the time.
    Time to roll up our sleeves and figure out how we can take some of these lessons and apply them here in Northfield. We are just as smart and capable as those we met….now we need to believe it and work with our City Council to help set the table for success.

    March 27, 2008
  4. Ross Currier said:


    You noted that “One of the benefits was that Chaska inherited millions of dollars’ worth of federally-funded infrastructure when the plug was pulled on the Jonathan experiment. Taking advantage of this existing infrastructure was partly responsible for the fact that Chaska filled its industrial parks before Chanhassen and Eden Prairie did, even though Chaska is further from the metropolitan core.” and later “The abandoned infrastructure from the Jonathan project was millions of dollars the City didn’t have to spend.”

    Based on this information, did you get a fairly accurate sense of what it might take, in terms of public investment, to build a successful industrial park in Northfield?

    Thanks much,


    April 1, 2008
  5. Bill Ostrem said:

    I’m glad to Northfielders are seeking to learn from others, and I enjoyed learning more about Chaska via the discussion here.

    This is an aside to the main thread: I was interested in Tracy’s description of Jonathan, MN. Since I grew up in Plymouth, I occasionally traveled by the modernist buildings of Jonathan but knew little about it.

    I found one interesting historical source on Jonathan in a quick Web search: a 1971 article by a Washington Post reporter, “The Midwest: An Unlikely Laboratory for New Towns.” It discusses both Jonathan and the Cedar-Riverside development in Minneapolis.


    The article is critical of the “ex-urban” Jonathan, foreseeing its troubles, and more admiring of the Cedar-Riverside development. Both projects seem rather utopian for today’s more jaded era.

    April 1, 2008
  6. Greg Boe said:

    Not only does Chaska have a great community center (with reduced rates for Chaska residents), they also offer a top-notch public golf course – the “Chaska Town Course” (that also offers reduced rates for Chaska residents), and Wi-Fi wireless high-speed Internet access anywhere in town for a reasonable $15.99 per month! And on top of that, of course, you can add a picturesque historic downtown, PGA events at Hazeltine National Golf Club, and strong community spirit and pride!

    Jonathan continues to evolve, so that story is not yet complete. However, suffice to say that Jonathan is a healthy part of a vibrant Chaska community!

    Greg – a proud Chaska resident

    May 4, 2008
  7. Jessica Paxton said:

    My family moved to Jonathan in 1977. Five years later, I came to Northfield as a freshman at St. Olaf but my parents and younger siblings lived in Chaska for over 15 years. I remember when I was in high school I had some friends at Eden Prairie high school that used to tease me about a section they had studied in social studies class — “Jonathan: The Town That Failed.” Seemed a little premature to call it a failure (especially since it was where I lived!). But I remember there always was a bit of “stigma” related to living in Jonathan. We lived in Chaska but weren’t really “townies.” Anyway, it’s amazing to me to see how Chaska and the surrounding communities have grown and changed over the years. An explosion of development. When I lived there it was considered “rural” and nowadays it’s like almost any other suburban community in the Twin Cities.

    May 5, 2008
  8. Victor and I went to Chaska in April. Impressive gateway from the south; a grand bridge and big Best Western Hotel. We drove around the spread-out downtown looking for and asking about eateries. The locally-owned downtown restaurants had closed or seemed in the process of doing so and I noticed one or two older impressive commercial buildings for sale or sitting empty. Their downtown is not walkable or bikeable; ie it was built for the motor car with lots of parking and this to me is the significant and inescapable difference between Chaska and Northfield. We went there on a weekday and the downtown was pretty dead. Lots of business activity and lots of franchise restaurants in the big new mall about two miles out of town on a hill. Depressing.

    May 5, 2008
  9. kiffi summa said:

    Norman: Considering that your view of Chaska, at least as it relates to the downtown, is very different than that being put forth by the EDA, do you think the difference in perspective is all in the eye of the beholder? I.E., the EDA is only looking at the relevance of industrial land/development in Chaska and touting that as idyllic; You are looking at the contrast in their and our Downtowns, and finding ours better.

    Is the EDA so focussed on this annexation that they are forgetting what was originally the number One focus of the TIP strategies Plan, which was: focus on your downtown; it is your greatest asset. Somehow during the process that statement moved to number Two in priority.

    What would you, Norman, as a person who has invested a lot in the DT, and continues to do so, recommend?

    May 5, 2008
  10. Jessica Paxton said:

    I totally agree with your assessment, Norman. For such a large and “bustling” community, the downtown has very little foot traffic. It’s quite charming and historic but sadly on the decline. I have many friends that still live in Chaska, and while they certainly share a great deal of community spirit and pride, they’re more excited about the big box development that comes to town than about supporting the local retailers/business owners or maintaining any sort of “small town” flavor. What used to be beautiful farmland is now home to sprawling mini malls. I think there are also three Targets or SuperTargets within 5-10 minutes of each other (one in Chaska, one in Chanhassen and one right off Hwy 101 in Minnetonka). Talk about over-saturation! It all looks so commercial.

    May 5, 2008
  11. Annex the land, put a five to ten year moratorium on its development unless it is an industrial one (defined to include continued agricultural use), merge with Dundas, seek a third college (trade school) in Dundas (now a village within Northfield with its own downtown), lobby for the Dan Patch passenger rail service from the Twin Cities, sort out the ongoing constitutional crisis (ie strong mayor/city manager), destroy the dam using a Barnes-Wallis bouncing bomb on July 4th (spectacular!) and build two more windmills north and south.

    May 5, 2008
  12. Bruce Morlan said:

    Norm suggests annexing now and regretting later. Interestingly, Politics and a Pint reached the same conclusion when we discussed annexation (see
    Politics and a Pint
    for details).

    As for the EDA, it’s middle name tells all, development. That’s why I tried (unsuccessfully, so far) to suggest that the rural townships have to build a counterpart to the EDA that I called the Economic Sustainability Authority whose task would be to ensure that when the dust settles (when we have to stop expanding because we are literally out of room) we’ll have a sustainable greater Northfield-Dundas community, not just another Chaska, which Jessica Paxton warns us about above.

    May 5, 2008

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