Wright County has had a problem over the years when it has come to growth. The county’s population has exploded, but the business climate hasn’t grown to the same degree.
From 1990 to 2010, the population of the county grew by 82 percent – from 68,710 in 1990 to 125,095 in 2010. The projection for the 2020 census results has the county’s current population at about 140,000 and still growing. However, 70 percent of the county’s workforce works outside the county. As a result, Wright County has started the process of looking into establishing an Economic Development Authority (EDA) to help create more business growth in the county – something Commissioner Mike Potter felt has been long overdue.
“Of the 87 counties in Minnesota, I don’t know how many of them have an EDA, but almost all of the metropolitan and higher growth counties have them already,” Potter said. “Keep in mind that we came from a county board that was largely made up of farmers and retirees. They basically said it wasn’t the county’s job or core function to have an EDA. Let the cities deal with it. The problem with that mindset is that the federal grant opportunities that are out there require the county to have an EDA and we don’t have one.”
Potter said it would be up to the county board to determine how active an EDA would be. It could be a driver for future industrial growth or it could be approved and simply there to use when a grant opportunity arises.
While the level of activity a Wright County EDA will have remains subject to future debate, the need for it has been demonstrated.
“When they do those checklists of how much skin you have in the game, you have a county EDA – check – you’ve got a city EDA – check,” Potter said. “When they do scoring of points for who gets the federal funding for big projects, you’ve got to have all those boxes checked or you’re going to be a bridesmaid every year just watching from the sideline.”
One of the reasons for the push to start the EDA process is that Wright County will moving to one campus by the fall of 2021. Once that happens, the Government Center and Health & Human Services Center will no longer be needed and could be sold.
However, as Commissioner Mark Daleiden pointed out, the playing field for maximizing returns on the property could be very different if the county has an EDA or it doesn’t.
“As it pertains to the Government Center and the HHS Building, if we were looking to sell the buildings, as things stand now, we would have to go out for bids,” Daleiden said. “We don’t have to take bids with an EDA. We can market the properties. It allows us to do partnerships where we could sell the property and take in money over several years like you would with a lease to own. It opens our options on how we sell the properties and what the use for them will be.”
The hope of bringing more businesses into Wright County is an added piece to having a county EDA. The county’s growth has been largely organic – families wanting to leave the Twin Cities metro to live in safer communities that are less congested. Wright County has been extremely successful in that regard as a living destination over the last three decades.
However, the same hasn’t been true for industry. The county’s growth has created more business opportunities, but Potter wants to see the number of workers in the county have jobs locally instead of commuting to the Twin Cities or St. Cloud.
“I think we’re an untapped resource for business growth in this county,” Potter said. “When you look at the number of businesses we’ve got versus places like Carver, Scott or Anoka County, it’s sad. We’re not even in the minor leagues. We’re in Little League. Right now, 70 percent of our workforce who live in Wright County don’t work here. It’s not realistic to expect to drop that number to 20 percent, but we could knock it down to 50 percent. That’s an attainable goal. Having an EDA would help drive that push to add new businesses and keep more of our residents working here instead of commuting.”
The EDA process will be an ongoing one over the next several months with numerous statutorily-mandated steps, including notifying cities and townships of the intent, a county board resolution to create the EDA, selecting the members that will sit on the EDA committee and determining the scope of authority that will be placed on the committee.
In this preliminary stage, Potter said the county board can lay out the framework of how the EDA will be configured and the power it will wield. Making those decisions early in the process can set the standard by which it will operate and to what extent it will have an impact on the county’s future.
“To me, this isn’t much of a risk,” Potter said. “You can have an EDA that doesn’t have to function with meetings twice a month just for the sake of having meetings. It can be there so if some federal grant opportunities come up, having an EDA in place will help us get access to those programs. We can make this as big or small as we choose to.”