DEED officials exposed to vision for downtown

Two groups planted "seeds" Monday in hopes their efforts will bear more than fruit. Park Rapids' Downtown Task Force and RDG consultants of Omaha first presented their plans to Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) Co...

Two groups planted "seeds" Monday in hopes their efforts will bear more than fruit.

Park Rapids' Downtown Task Force and RDG consultants of Omaha first presented their plans to Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) Commissioner Dan McElroy and Mark Lofthus, DEED's director of business and community development.

Later in the day, McElroy laid out Gov. Tim Pawlenty's proposal for Strategic Entrepreneurial Economic Development (SEED), one component of which would offer money for revitalizing Minnesota's Main Streets.

David Collins, Hubbard County Regional Economic Development Commission executive director, introduced Marty Shukert of RDG and the state officials, suggesting the SEED initiative could help with carrying out the vision for downtown Park Rapids.

Shukert briefly reviewed the results of nearly a year's work on a master plan for downtown, emphasizing the reason for the effort is that investing in downtown can pay dividends in producing a stronger economy, encouraging private investment and enhancing quality of life.


A 10 percent increase in downtown retail sales, for example, would add $4 million, the equivalent of $12 million to the local economy as the money turns over. "That is $3,000 for each full-time resident so the stakes are pretty high," Shukert said.

RDG's plans for Shenandoah, IA, produced demonstrable benefits, he said.

Shukert was in town to meet with the Downtown Task Force and others at a retreat to review the final plans and talk about implementation Tuesday.

After the presentation Monday, McElroy asked about participation so far and how to engage others in the process.

Shukert mentioned the original survey which drew a record number of responses compared to other communities he's worked in. There also have been focus groups, public meetings and a design charrette.

Future engagement will develop as an organization structure develops to tie businesses together on a cooperative basis, Shukert said. A project will bring others in and ultimately, he said, business owners will realize a functioning and cooperative downtown district is fun for themselves as well as their customers.

"Enlightened self-interest lies in cooperation not competition," Shukert said, conceding, "it can be a challenge, but it starts with doing something."

SEED proposal


The audience grew for McElroy's later presentation. As the new commissioner, appointed in January 2007, McElroy traveled the state to conduct listening sessions and determined a single statewide economic development strategy doesn't make sense any more.

One thing McElroy said he gained from the sessions was that regional strategies would better reflect the state's diversity.

He also listed themes he heard: partnerships are key, economies are interconnected, distinct regions have distinct advantages, it is more important to create wealth than jobs and assumptions by youth need to change.

According to McElroy, the workforce in northwest Minnesota is expected to grow by about 20,000 people in the next decade so it is important to "sell rural Minnesota.

There also will be more opportunities for older workers, the "chronologically gifted."

The SEED proposal recognizes these and other demographic realities. Legislation is currently being written to implement the plan, which the governor will support with a proposal of $20 million in spending and an additional $50 million in one-time bonding in the upcoming legislative session.

Broadly, the initiative targets developing and growing entrepreneurs, new capital for rural business and a sustained competitive advantage for rural Minnesota.

The bonding portion would provide business development infrastructure, redevelopment grants and bioscience development infrastructure.


Asked if the proposal is realistic, given the state of the economy and a projected budget deficit, McElroy said, when there is an economic downturn, that is the best time to make an investment.

"Most metropolitan legislators get it, so ask your legislators to support it, too."

If the program is funded, he said money would be available in July or August 2008.

If communities have to complete an application, McElroy and Lofthus assured the forms are only as complicated as they need to be to be accountable but they won't be "stupidly complex."

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