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.)