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Commentary: The facts on Kandiyohi Co./ Willmar EDC’s performance

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By Steve Renquist

The Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission is a legislatively recognized “joint powers.” The EDC is a collaborative effort by the two elective bodies recognizing the potential for improving the economy at a cost-effective basis. The EDC started operations in 2003 and has a staff of three persons plus a contract administrative assistant.

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Recently, a letter has been released suggesting the EDC’s efforts were misguided, ineffective and a poor investment for the city of Willmar. Many portions of the letter will not be addressed by me as they were far-reaching and included allegations inappropriate for my comment.

I believe people want to know how our economy is performing and they want the information given to them in understandable and verifiable numbers. I will prepare a summary of facts and their source; you will determine your opinion on the matter.

The following is a partial summary of the Kandiyohi County and city of Willmar economy:

In the time since the EDC was created (2003), Kandiyohi County’s labor force has gained about 1,000 net new workers (Kandiyohi County Demographic & Economic Profile — DEED Analysis and Evaluation Office) With an average Kandiyohi County wage of $32,864 (DEED Analysis and Evaluation Office), that indicates an increase of over $32 million in the county-based jobs annual payroll.

This increase in payroll partially explains the increase in county-based gross sales of nearly $1 billion from 2000 to 2010 (Kandiyohi County Demographic and Economic Profile). During the recession and recovery, Kandiyohi County had some of the lowest unemployment rates in our 18-county region — consistently below state averages.

How does our economy compare with other regional centers? There is an economic factors ranking service (Policom Corporation) that uses several factors to measure the health of an area’s economy. The figures are compiled by the Census Bureau and the Office of Management and Budget. The Policom rankings for the micropolitan sector compare expanded communities (Willmar and Kandiyohi County together) between 10,000 and 50,000 people.

Of 576 communities in the U.S. that fit the Policom micropolitan rankings, Willmar/Kandiyohi County is ranked 177th nationally. Minnesota has 16 rural micropolitan communities. Of the tabulated communities, Marshall is ranked 163rd. Faribault/Northfield is also higher than us, placing us as third best rural economy in the state. Our near competitors of Alexandria, Fergus Falls and Hutchinson are substantially below us in the ranking.

The EDC was criticized for placing too much emphasis on agriculture. I disagree. Kandiyohi County and Willmar have a multi-faceted economy with some of the highest technology companies in the nation. But it all starts with agriculture.

Kandiyohi County ranks eighth in Minnesota for the total value of agricultural products sold. We are a regional medical center. We are a regional shopping center. We have one of the few rural areas growing in population. We are a county of educational excellence offering a quality learning experience. We included a commitment to renewable resources in our county’s vision statement before it was popular and the state embraced the concept.

We are the only area to take a closed regional mental health hospital and turn it into an economic driver. The MinnWest Technology Campus has 30 companies with 410 employees leading our area into an advanced technological haven that is the envy of the state and is garnering national attention. All of this, and much more, is true but we start with agriculture and its many value-added forms. Even our efforts at renewable resources primarily involve agriculture. It is our past, it is our future — why, when I have aces in my hand, does somebody ask me to play my fours?

Some folks feel we place too much money and effort into tourism. Again, I disagree. Tourism marketing provides a measurable return on investment: an estimated $4.60 in state and local taxes for every $1 invested. The EDC invests $34,000 into the tourism-enhancing efforts of the Willmar Lakes Area Convention and Tourism Bureau and feels it is receiving good value.

Tourism is a major source of revenue and jobs in our county. A comparison will reveal that Kandiyohi County is receiving greater tourism revenue than six of eight other similarly sized counties with enhanced tourism. We trail Blue Earth (Mankato) and Crow Wing (Brainerd) Counties but surpass the others — indicating good value received from the work of our CVB.

Our combined city/county effort at economic development is working very well — we receive many inquiries regarding our mission and structure. The evidence shows Kandiyohi County/Willmar has a strong economy. Our performance exceeds all but two of the other rural regional centers in the state.

The EDC shares credit for our strength and success with several entities but it does claim a portion of the credit. Making the claim publicly is not the Minnesota way and I find it distasteful but, under the circumstances, necessary. Let us have future fact-based discussions on the topic at an EDC board meeting or at a Kandiyohi County Board or Willmar City Council meeting.

Steve Renquist is executive director of the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission.

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