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Committee: Wadena County should create economic development authority

To attract, improve and retain local businesses, Wadena County should create an economic development authority (EDA) and sign a contract with an existing agency to run it.

That's the unanimous recommendation of a 13-member citizen committee. Wadena-Deer Creek superintendent Lee Westrum, the committee chairman, presented the group's report at the June 24 county board meeting.

"We had a very active committee ..." Westrum said. "We had a strong commitment to this and overall we had a good committee process."

The group - appointed by the county board as required by state statute - met four times over a two month period this spring. It was made up of a diverse assortment of residents from throughout the county, including two mayors, two bankers, an insurance agent, a pastor, a realtor and a farmer. The Region 5 Development Commission facilitated the process.

Committee members assessed the economic development needs in Wadena County and weighed various options to remedy them.

The county, the committee found, lacks a single point of contact for businesses, while townships don't have access to professional economic development services.

"When we looked at some of the unmet needs we thought that those two were the biggest," Westrum said.

Without a countywide EDA, the county is missing opportunities for job creation and tax base growth, according to the Wadena County Economic Development Coordinator Feasibility Study, a 2008 report by Region 5 that the committee used as a framework.

"Businesses that could be brought into Wadena County are instead going to surrounding counties - Wadena is simply not in the game," the study said, noting Wadena was the only one of the five Region 5 counties without such services.

The committee didn't find many drawbacks to creating an EDA, Westrum said. There were a couple of concerns, including cost and compromised confidentiality if businesses are required to reveal sensitive information at public EDA board meetings.

The group talked at length about community bias when it comes to competition for new business, Westrum said, but ultimately agreed "there's a countywide benefit when there's a new enterprise or an expansion in the county ... People are mobile. The whole country really benefits when there is economic development anywhere in the county."

To lead the proposed authority, the committee recommended contracting with an existing agency for a part-time economic development director.

There are several eligible possibilities. Both Staples and Wadena have their own EDAs, while West Central Economic Development Alliance, a non-profit based in Sebeka, provides contracted EDA services for that city, Menahga and New York Mills. Because it's not a government entity, West Central can do work anywhere.

If the county decides to create an EDA, West Central will attempt to land the contract, said Mark Hanson, the organization's economic development director.

"That's absolutely our mission," he said. "We really want to show them what we've already done and say, 'we want to continue the work.'"

Sebeka Mayor David Anderson, a committee member, said Hanson was instrumental in the development of the Hub 71 Restaurant, which opened last fall.

Hanson said his other projects include the Burger Depot in Verndale, Moore's Sensational Looks in Wadena and Salo Manufacturing in Menahga.

Being affiliated with the county "just puts you in a different position," Hanson said. "Just having that credibility is huge."

To promote long-term sustainability, the committee recommended the county use a dedicated tax levy to fund the EDA, insulating it from budget cuts.

"It would allow you to give a firm, strong commitment to the economic development authority for a long-term run of five years ..." Westrum said. "We don't think that you can evaluate this within one year; it's going to take some time."

Although she hadn't crunched the exact figures, Melissa Radermacher, Region 5's regional development planner, said the levy would likely cost the average taxpayer in the ballpark of $1 per year. The tax increase, however modest, would allow local governments to opt out of the county EDA.

"It didn't sound like any of (the cities) thought there would be a huge reason, unless that tax was huge, to opt out," Radermacher told the board.

The tax levy idea was among several suggestions the group made that weren't required by statute. Others include obliging the county EDA coordinator to collaborate with agencies doing similar work, requiring an annual report, outlining a specific job description with output expectations and creating a revolving loan fund.

"It wouldn't have to be a huge amount of money, but we thought it would be something that would be important," Westrum said of the fund.

The Wadena Development Authority has a variety of such funds that have helped scores of businesses, Director Dean Uselman said.

Just last week, the WDA issued a fix-up loan for the new owners of The Uptown to remodel the restaurant.

Uselman said creating a countywide EDA could be a good thing, but it has to be properly implemented.

"I'm supportive of the concept," he said, "but concerned about how it will be funded."

At the June 24 meeting, county commissioners said they plan to examine the committee recommendations in greater detail in a yet-to-be-scheduled work session before deciding how - or whether - to proceed.