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New EDC director makes surprise visit

WILLMAR -- Even though he does not start his new job as executive director of the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission for two weeks, Aaron Backman surprised the operations board by showing up at its meeting Thursd...

Aaron Backman
Aaron Backman, left, surprised the EDC Operations Board Thursday by showing up at their meeting. Backman takes over Feb. 24 as the new executive director of the EDC. Also seen in the photo is Board Chairman Robert Carlson, Board Member Linda Kacher and Nancy Birkeland who provides administrative assistance to the EDC. (CAROLYN LANGE | TRIBUNE)

WILLMAR - Even though he does not start his new job as executive director of the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission for two weeks, Aaron Backman surprised the operations board by showing up at its meeting Thursday.
Backman officially begins Feb. 24 but he was in Willmar to take care of some personal business ahead of his move here and spent several hours with the board as members discussed issues during a regular monthly business meeting.
“I’m looking forward to working with all of you,” Backman said. “I’m eager to start the process with you on the 24th.”
Backman’s experience as an economic development director in North Dakota and Minnesota - including his current job in the city of Windom - showed through as he jumped into discussions about the EDC’s ongoing efforts to expand broadband connections to Kandiyohi County businesses and residents.
The board approved a resolution supporting a statewide broadband vision to bring “convenient, affordable, world-class broadband networks” to communities.
The resolution calls on the Legislature and governor to take action to achieve that vision.
The EDC has an active broadband committee that has met numerous times with local legislators to discuss the need for faster Internet service.
“While our local legislators have heard us, they have differing perspectives on the broadband initiative,” said Board Member Linda Kacher.
“They are listening to us,” she said, but it’s still unclear how much money the Legislature will be willing to spend on broadband.
Willmar Planning and Development Director Bruce Peterson said he’s seen a disconnect between rural and metro lawmakers when it comes to understanding the need for services in places like Kandiyohi County.
“They (metro legislators) just cannot fathom that we don’t have the same services that they do,” Peterson said.
Backman said his experience has shown that businesses will move to different communities if they don’t have the high-speed Internet service they need to operate and grow.
“Rural businesses in Kandiyohi County are really suffering,” said Connie Schmoll, EDC business development specialist.
Schmoll said Haug Implement, a farm equipment and services business in Willmar, has mapping services that farmers want but are unable to utilize because of a lack of adequate broadband connections.
She said businesses are ready to testify before the Legislature about their needs. Thanks to a grant and local funding, the EDC is seeking proposals from consultants to conduct a broadband feasibility study.
A consultant is expected to be selected this spring.
“I’m really glad to hear you’re doing the feasibility study,” Backman said. “It’s important you’re moving forward with that.”
Loan deferred
In other action, the board agreed to defer payments for six months on a $50,000 loan to Historic 313 Fourth Street LLC, which is remodeling the downtown Willmar building that houses the Foxhole Brewhouse.
Board members expressed concern about adjusting the loan but agreed that giving the LLC time to complete the remodeling project and get additional tenants into the space could help the project be successful.

Related Topics: KANDIYOHI COUNTY
Carolyn Lange is a features writer at the West Central Tribune. She can be reached at clange@wctrib.com or 320-894-9750
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