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Park Rapids to revitalize Economic Development Authority

What is the role of the Economic Development Authority of Park Rapids?

That's the question the Park Rapids City Council is asking.

The council comprises the EDA and the group met recently to listen to an "EDA 101" presentation from Dave Hengel, who works with Headwaters Regional Development Commission.

Economic development has changed dramatically in the last few years.

"What used to be pretty simple - you attract businesses, give them as many incentives as you can and get them in here is simply not how it works anymore," Hengel said.

The key change is technology.

"Now, the question is 'why here?'" he said. "Your geography matters less and your place matters more. People have the choice now of where you want to locate."

Before, people thought they needed the four-lane highway or major metro area, he added.

Economic development has several components.

Marketing communities has always been a part of economic development but it's not all that's needed. Talent is becoming more important, as well as quality of life.

"If people can choose to locate their family, their business, their workers, they're going to want a place that's great to live," Hengel said.

Working together is always key.

"You can't have the city council going one way, the county board going another ... the downtown businesses doing their own thing," he said. "You have to align those resources, align those ideas behind one common direction."

In the past, economic development was about getting businesses bigger but now, the goal is to be prosperous, he said.

"We used to do it by being the cheapest," Hengel said.

But now, communities need to have a competitive niche.

"Housing is economic development, or when we talk about downtowns, it's really economic development to me, building successful neighborhoods, it's economic development to me," he said.

Hengel has worked with the Park Rapids City Council on four strategic planning sessions in the last 15 years. He provided some background.

The EDA of Park Rapids is blessed, Hengel said.

"You have funding that most cities don't have," he said.

City administrator Bill Smith said the city has two funds through the EDA that total about $400,000. The Park Rapids City Council has expressed interest in finding a way to utilize these funds.

The city has Urban Development Action Grant (UDAG) funding. UDAG was a federal program started under the Carter administration. The funding came when the original RDO opened in Park Rapids, Hengel said.

"The program died under Reagan, doesn't exist, but the funds are still there," he said.

The city also has money through the Minnesota Investment Fund. Those funds came to the city when Team Industries opened.

Both funds were paid back and could be used for future economic development purposes.

"There have been questions on the potential reuse of these funds," Hengel said.

It is fairly broad. The funds should be used for economic development purposes as the city council decides, he said. Some flexibility has been added over the years.

"They saw (the funds) sitting in pots over the years, which is not the purpose," Hengel said.

Projects now could be training-related, technology-related or housing-related.

The state wants repayment potential for projects, though. For example, the state prefers the funds come back to the city in some way.

"When you think of the $400,000 and the flexibility that's there, I think it's a heck of an opportunity," Hengel said.

In 2001, the city created the Park Rapids Strategic Economic Development Plan. A committee was appointed and asked to define the city's role, target investments for those resources and recommend business subsidy criteria.

Mayor Nancy Carroll asked if there have been changes in the state since 2001, when the plan and business subsidy criteria were approved.

Hengel thought it would be good to take a look at it but didn't think there had been any major changes at the state level.

Hengel offered a few suggestions for the city to move forward.

"I think there's an opportunity to align your resources," he said.

Also, he suggests the city use its existing funds to leverage other dollars and figure out some critical projects.

Carroll said she sees working with some other local groups and forming partnerships as a good next step for the EDA.

The EDA expressed interest in having more sessions to talk about economic development in the city to determine the next steps.

Anna Erickson
Anna Erickson is editor of the Wadena Pioneer Journal.
(218) 631-2561