Gov. Mark Dayton, as part of a 12-member panel, focused on economic development Friday and listened to Brainerd area leaders identify obstacles and solutions.
His third economic summit, conducted in the John Chalberg Theatre at Central Lakes College, was set in a city that has often led the state in unemployment among cities with 10,000 or more population. In July, the city’s jobless rate jumped to 15 percent, up from 12.9 percent in June. The Brainerd micropolitan area, which covers Cass and Crow Wing counties, had a July jobless rate of 8.9 percent.
Panelist Mark Ronnei, general manager of Grand View Lodge, said educated young people were leaving the area and noted those who remained in Brainerd were struggling to find work.
“We’re creating a central Minnesota ghetto,” he said.
Ronnei said talented young people were not returning to Brainerd because they did not see a future here.
He also said state employees were shackled by antiquated systems and the resulting permitting delays prevented them from being partners with business in economic development.
As he would do several times during summit with various speakers, Dayton told Ronnei he would have a state commissioner contact him on his concerns no later than Monday.
Dayton expressed concern that Grand View was having difficulties with the permitting process in the DNR.
“We’re very serious about tackling it (bureaucratic red tape),” the governor said. “I’ll follow up with you.”
Rep. John Ward, DFL-Brainerd, said the area was blessed with a state regional treatment center and industrial parks and was hungry for living wage jobs. He called for a public/private jobs program with tax incentives for small businesses to hire.
Sheila Haverkamp, executive director of the Brainerd Lakes Area Economic Development Corp., said her organization is focused on business attraction and retention. She said BLAEDC is seeking help from top executive retirees who live in the area.
“ ‘We’re ready, let’s grow’ is the image we’re projecting,” she said.
Haverkamp said she’d like to see a permanent dedicated source of funds for economic development and further streamlining of state programs and processes.
Representing CLC students was Julie Jo Larson. She said she was among the 22 percent of students who were over 30 and the 70 percent who received financial aid or scholarships. Her concerns were keeping tuition costs down, finding full-time employment at a living wage and not having to move to the Twin Cities or the Dakotas for employment.
“Many of us want to work in the Brainerd lakes area,” she said. “We do not want government handouts as students. We want to work.”
Former Republican state Sen. Carrie Rudd of the Breezy Point area encouraged the governor to include representatives of the housing and real estate industry in future summits. Rudd and her husband have owned Lakes and Leisure Realty for 25 years. She expressed concern about the high number of rental properties and foreclosures.
The disconnect that can occur between the needs of employers and the skill sets of students was addressed by more than one person at the summit.
Brainerd School District Superintendent Steve Razidlo said Brainerd schools are involved in a pilot program with an ACT test that measures work readiness, which he said might become the new currency in post-secondary education.
Lisa Paxton, CEO of the Brainerd Lakes Chamber, said manufacturers complain of the lack of skilled workers and the Bridges Workplace Connection is addressing that problem. The Bridges program is a cooperative venture involving the chamber, area school districts and Central Lakes College.
She said surveys have indicated that more than 80 percent of students who attended a Bridges event felt they had established a better connection with job providers. Qualified workers will be needed to replace retiring baby boomers, she said.
Miranda Anderson, marketing director for Essentia Health, said the health system has recruited seven physicians recently but has difficulty finding qualified employees for mid-level positions.
Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Brainerd, and Ward both mentioned the success of the mountain bike trail near Crosby as an economic development success story. Gazelka said the parking lots at the trail are full, nearby Ruttger’s resort has benefited and this was an attraction that “government had a major hand in.” He and Ward also expressed satisfaction that extra money had been legislated to fight aquatic invasive species in area lakes.
He favored an attitude shift of government working with business on economic development. He praised one of Dayton’s commissioners who he quoted as having said, “We need to move at the speed of commerce.”
Gazelka suggested an ombudsman for agencies like the DNR who would see a business permit through the regulation process.
Steve Christenson, executive vice president with Ascensus, said his firm is one of the Brainerd area’s largest employers and yet many people and students have no idea what it does. The financial services firm has employees who work as consultants and record-keepers. He said the Brainerd area offers quality schools, a strong work orce, fiber optic resources and the help of the chamber and BLAEDC. He would like to see paid and unpaid internships made available for students and tuition reimbursement.
Panel member Randy Olson, vice president of economic opportunity with the Initiative Foundation in LIttle Falls, said his organization works as a nonprofit lender. Its objective is to be an alternative lender that can fill capital voids.
“I would like to see the state of Minnesota establish a revolving loan fund,” Olson said.
Larry Lundblad, president of CLC, said his school is responsive to the community. It draws its more than 6,000 students from a seven-county region. He said about 1,700 students earn college credits at the college. CLC’s Ag and Energy Center at the Staples campus researches crops that can grow in central Minnesota. He said the college has grown by 52 percent in the last four years. Minnesota, he said, has the third highest tuition in the nation among community colleges.
Responding to a question from the audience, Dayton said he did his best to preserve Local Government Aid since counties and cities have limited options for raising revenue and must provide essential services.
“I made my pitch on that very clear,” he said.
Brainerd City Council President Mary Koep said Brainerd was well positioned to be the site of a geriatric center at the Brainerd Regional Treatment Center.
“We are an aging society,” Koep said. “Our area is becoming a retirement community.”
Char Kinzer, public relations manager for Crow Wing Power, talked about her firm’s manganese extraction project in Emily. She was pleased with a recent initiative that requires state agencies to state why a report is not concluded if the working period has been more than 150 days.
Maurice Olson urged the state to support rail travel. Dayton said that was an unmet challenge and that the U.S. was far behind other nations in that area.
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MIKE O’ROURKE may be reached at email@example.com or 855-5860.