Economic development commission director for Willmar, Kandiyohi County retires after 11 years

WILLMAR -- Steve Renquist doesn't give up easily. Even on the verge of retirement, he's still thinking about the economic development projects that haven't yet happened. "We got so close," he laments about efforts to locate a veterans' home in Wi...

Steve Renquist
Steve Renquist, who is retiring this year as executive director of the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission, looks back at the past decade. (ANNE POLTA | TRIBUNE)

WILLMAR - Steve Renquist doesn’t give up easily.
Even on the verge of retirement, he’s still thinking about the economic development projects that haven’t yet happened.
“We got so close,” he laments about efforts to locate a veterans’ home in Willmar. “We still haven’t given up on it.”
Renquist, who turns 66 in September, is stepping down as executive director of the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission.
In the 11 years he has headed the EDC, he’s been a familiar figure around Kandiyohi County - speaking, attending meetings, coaxing, encouraging and brokering deals, all in the name of boosting the county’s economy.
“It’s been an incredibly interesting ride,” he reflected last week. “I like economic development. I’ve never dreaded coming to work here. I like the people I work for. I like very much the people I work with.”
In the beginning, he never planned on coming to Kandiyohi County at all.
A former small-business owner and economic developer with a tri-state development organization, he was working as the administrator of Sibley County when his son emailed him an online posting for the economic development position in Willmar and Kandiyohi County.
It was the last day for submitting an application and there was no time for a fancy cover letter or envelope, Renquist said. “I literally faxed it over to the EDC office.”
He had never set foot in Kandiyohi County before, so that week he and his wife, Dawn, accompanied by their dog, “decided to come over and drive around.”
He liked the downtown office and the staff he met. He was impressed that economic development in Kandiyohi County was a partnership between the county and the city of Willmar.
“It told me the community was willing to invest in economic development,” he said. “It told me they could get past the competitive forces that go on between counties and their principal cities.”
A decade later, he’s looking back at what he sees as a sustained upward trend in local growth.
He points to a doubling of the sales tax revenue, from $1.1 billion to $2 billion. Average weekly wages have consistently climbed in the state rankings for regional centers, he said.
Although the EDC can’t take all the credit, it played a role, said Renquist. “We work on building the environment in which growth can happen. Then we look for the best opportunities within that environment. Just like farming, we try to remove as many obstacles as we can that inhibit the growth… So many people look at things that happen and say it would have happened anyway. But part of opportunity is recognizing that it’s right in front of you.”
Along with a reputation for being both genial and long-winded, he’s also known for straightforwardness.
Renquist said he’s never been one to tell his board members what they want to hear. “I just tell them right up front, ‘Here’s what I know and what I believe.’ ”
The search for the next EDC executive director is getting underway. Renquist will stay on for the transition over the next few months but plans to wrap up his tenure by the end of the year.
Whoever steps in next “is coming at a good time,” he said. “I am proud of our accomplishments. I spent most of my time working on what I call game changers - things that will fundamentally change the economy. We rank with some of the very best regional centers in the country. The EDC is going to have an opportunity now to go in a different direction.”


An open house reception in honor of Steve Renquist’s retirement will be held from 3 to 5 p.m. Wednesday in the multi-purpose room of the Kandiyohi County Health and Human Services Building in Willmar.


Search firm chosen to help find next EDC director

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