County ponders economic development

Commissioners want to add tools beyond infrastructure improvements

WashCo_logoThe Washington County Board of Commissioners listened to advice from city officials Tuesday about more ways the county could cooperate on economic development with local communities.

City representatives offered numerous ideas during a workshop that ranged from simple ideas such as advocating and lobbying for economic development tools to complex proposals such as facilitating a county-wide fiber optics network and engaging in a marketing campaign towards business development.
Every suggestion had a different cost and commissioners made no decisions on how they would proceed on any suggestion.

The county’s role in economic development was an issue in several contested board races last fall. Historically, the county has worked mainly with infrastructure but commissioners want to include other tools in their tool box to help communities with economic development.

“Before you go too far down the road, I suggest you get comfortable and walk before you run,” said Oakdale City Administrator Craig Waldron. “Pick three things to do and do it really well to help enhance the local level and I’d caution you about equity. I guarantee that if you get into economic development, you’ll have people say, ‘How come Woodbury is getting this and we’re not getting this.’ I’ve seen it happen at the regional level.”

Ideas organizing and achieving these tools include employing an economic development professional, expanding the county’s Housing and Redevelopment Agency’s activities to include economic development, setting up a county economic development authority, a community development agency, or county economic development corporation.

“I’m not sure where the county stands on this right now, and we have no idea what the impacts are,” said Commissioner Gary Kriesel. “Now we’re looking at needing more tools in the toolbox and you’re helping us evaluate should we go with the EDA, or public/private partnerships. What can we do with economic development and what set of issues need more concentration. What is the role of the county taking the next step and what is the vehicle we need to use going forward.”

Commissioners agreed that whatever ideas are utilized, it’s important that economic development undertaken is done equitably. Economic development means different things for different cities, according to Todd Streeter, executive director of the Greater Stillwater Chamber of Commerce.

“Having worked closely with Stillwater, Lake Elmo, Oak Park Heights and Bayport on economic development, I learned that it means different things to different cities,” he said. “We can’t leverage or define what that means collectively. If this does result, we need to make sure the cities are in the position to have what they want done and they need to know what they need to accomplish that.”

Commissioner Fran Miron said Streeter made good points and suggested that commissioners consider creating an advisory board or think tank of sorts to help the county engage in future economic development efforts.

“This is not about us versus you. We need your help here to start a cooperative venture going forward to help us understand what is needed in the community and we’re asking you to help us.” Commissioner Ted Bearth said.