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EDC debates goals, priorities for economic development

WILLMAR -- Is the addition of more jobs the best strategy for Kandiyohi County to promote economic growth?

Should there be more emphasis on creating jobs that pay well? What about targeting the types of industries that promote the most local spending?

These and other questions were wrestled with Monday by staff and volunteers of the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission at a half-day planning session.

The discussion will help lay the groundwork for setting goals and priorities for the EDC and its business retention, expansion and recruitment committee.

"It's about making sure the goals we have are good goals," said Jean Spaulding, assistant director of the Economic Development Commission.

The plan won't be finalized until next month, when the operating and governing boards of the EDC have a second half-day session for more review and discussion.

And whatever shape the final plan takes, it will still be a work in progress, said Steve Renquist, executive director of the EDC.

"As we look down our list, there are things that could be modified. There are opportunities that have presented themselves since the last list was created," he said. "It's hard to say it's etched in granite."

The discussion Monday opened with a presentation of new economic and demographic data, derived from the 2010 U.S. Census and compiled by Cameron Macht, a labor force analyst with the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.

Among the highlights:

-- Kandiyohi County is growing more slowly than it did two or three decades ago. From 2000 to 2010 the county gained about 1,000 new residents, a growth rate of 2.5 percent. Minnesota's population as a whole grew 7.8 percent.

-- Despite this slowdown, Willmar is now the seventh largest city in outstate Minnesota. It's also one of the few counties in southwestern Minnesota that is not experiencing a population decline.

"It is the largest employment center and has the most diverse economy," Macht said.

-- The number of jobs in Kandiyohi County has not returned to pre-recession levels, but there was a gain of just under 1 percent this past year, signaling a slow but steady recovery.

-- Health care is the county's largest industry, followed by manufacturing and retail.

-- Most businesses in Kandiyohi County are small; 87 percent have fewer than 20 employees.

-- The population is aging. Those 65 and older accounted for the largest demographic share in the 2010 Census. But there's a lag among the 25- to 44-year-olds -- younger adults in their prime working years. "That can be a challenge when you're looking at the workforce," Macht said.

In view of these trends, where should economic development efforts be focused? A quick poll of the dozen people in the room put cutting-edge industry at the top of the list. This was followed by industries that supply other local companies and industries that bring in outside dollars.

Industries that have the most impact on local economics are those that buy local or make significant use of local resources, explained Neil Linscheid, a facilitator with the University of Minnesota Extension and leader of the discussion.

"Not all jobs are the same," he said. "When you buy local or invest in industries that buy their supplies locally, that has a big effect."

"I think we've got to try to get a balance of all of those," said Gary Geiger, of the EDC's business retention, expansion and recruitment committee.

Others in the group suggested there should be increased emphasis on recruiting and retaining quality jobs that pay well, particularly the kinds of jobs that might help keep younger workers in the community.

Monday's discussion will lead into the development of new short-term and longer-term goals for the Economic Development Commission's activities in retaining and expanding local businesses and bringing in new jobs and employers.

Many of the goals, such as promoting growth in the bioscience industry, are likely to be unchanged. Others might move farther down on the priority list -- for example, renewable energy, which was white-hot a few years ago but has shown signs of cooling down.

"Are we spending too much time, too much money, too much resources, on renewable energy?" Renquist wondered. "I'll argue against it but maybe we need to talk about that."

"It comes down to where are we most effective and where is the low-hanging fruit," said committee member Roger Imdieke.

Harlan Madsen, a Kandiyohi County Commissioner and member of the EDC governing board, said he's looking forward to a second session next month that will be "very fruitful."

"This moved a long ways and very clearly set some questions out," he said. "It gives me a much better handle."

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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