WILLMAR — As the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission works on setting goals and developing a work plan for 2014, the organization is looking at a more clearly defined focus.
No major changes in direction are contemplated. But at a planning session Tuesday of the EDC joint powers board and joint operations board, board members sought to clarify how best to target the Economic Development Commission’s activities during the coming year.
For four hours, the two boards discussed and debated the priorities. Should the emphasis be on enhancing existing businesses or on bringing new businesses into Kandiyohi County? What should the EDC’s role be in promoting the Willmar airport? How do agriculture and tourism fit into the picture?
Despite moments of friction, Denis Anderson, a Willmar City Councilman and chairman of the joint powers board, said afterward that the discussion was productive.
“This was really a good session,” he said.
Both boards will receive a written report within the next month.
In the meantime, the two boards reached an informal consensus Tuesday on what the EDC’s goals should be:
- Creating, recruiting, retaining and expanding businesses in Kandiyohi County.
- Promoting and positioning Willmar as a regional medical center.
- Increasing business development at the MinnWest Technology Campus.
- Fostering business growth in agriculture and renewable energy.- Improving, maintaining and expanding the transportation infrastructure through increased collaboration.
Board members agreed that supporting all aspects of business growth in Kandiyohi County should be the role of the EDC.
Bringing new businesses into the county is important, said Bob Enos, a member of the joint operations board. “I like to hear that we’ve got some agents out in the field trying to steal some business our way.”
Supporting the businesses that already are here is also key, according to Anderson. “I’d like to create a climate where we can expand the existing businesses,” he said.
There was consensus to redefine the EDC’s current goals of supporting Rice Memorial Hospital and the Willmar airport by broadening these to include all of local health care and highway, rail and air transportation.
Health care is one of Kandiyohi County’s leading employers, accounting for about one in four jobs. That makes it an important area to address, but the EDC has struggled to find the right role, said Steve Renquist, executive director of the Economic Development Commission.
Renewing the conversation could uncover new opportunities such as help in recruiting professional staff, he said.
“A lot of industries are struggling with that. Recruitment is one of the biggest issues,” agreed Jean Spaulding, assistant director of the EDC.
EDC board members also agreed that although they don’t want to abandon their focus on the Willmar airport, they should expand their efforts to the entire transportation infrastructure.
“To me, highways are most important. We all use highways,” said Milan Schmiesing of the joint operations board.
Board members weren’t unanimous on all the priorities, and their disagreements led at times to open friction.
Willmar City Councilman Steve Ahmann objected to the $34,000 annual allocation the EDC makes to the Willmar Lakes Area Convention and Visitors Bureau to carry out tourism activities and promotion. He called it “corporate welfare” that falls short of delivering a return.
“I don’t think it’s a wise investment at all,” he said.
Fellow councilman Ron Christianson said he shares Ahmann’s concerns about the funds designated for the Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Why aren’t they completely funded by the lodging tax?” he asked.
The county can’t recruit workers without the local lifestyle amenities developed by the tourism industry, countered Harlan Madsen of the Kandiyohi County Board of Commissioners.
“It was a better investment,” he said of the EDC’s funding allocation to the Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It’s far more productive.”
Ahmann, Christianson and Madsen are all members of the joint powers board, made up of three council members and three County Board members.
Disagreement also erupted at the start of the meeting when Enos questioned the choice of Scott Marquardt, vice president of the Southwest Initiative Foundation, as the moderator for the planning session.
The EDC’s 2014 budget includes an $18,000 allocation, not yet approved, to the Southwest Initiative Foundation, raising the possibility of a conflict of interest, Enos said. “Might it have made more sense to have a moderator who doesn’t have a stake in the budget outcome?” he said.
Renquist said there was no attempt to influence the discussion, a statement that was echoed by other board members. “I don’t believe there is a conflict of interest. He’s here to facilitate,” Schmiesing said.
Final adoption of the EDC’s goals and work plan for 2014 is expected no later than January. The Economic Development Commission also will soon finalize next year’s budget. A total budget of $531,707 has been proposed, a 5.8 percent increase from this year.