Back to the May-Jun 2020 issue

Creating a Town Team for Economic Development

By CJ Holl

Noted Dallas real estate developer and radio personality Jim Kelley says, “Economic development is really a team sport.”

True, but how does a smaller city create a “town team” to handle busi­ness development, recruitment, train­ing, resources, housing, and all the other issues that roll into devel­oping new business opportunities for their communities?

Illustration suggesting the concept of the town team.This can be a struggle for smaller cities. Looking across the state, there is not one right answer — cities have to find what works for them.

Some cities have separate economic development authorities (EDAs) or housing and redevelopment authori­ties (HRAs), while others have the city councilmembers serve as the EDA. In some cities, there are full- or part-time economic development staff members. City administrators or other city staff can partly take on that role as well.

Robust team in Perham

The City of Perham (population 3,397) has a multi-pronged approach. It has an EDA and an HRA, both of which are independent from the city. The city also has an economic development department with a full-time director. The city’s economic development board consists of community leaders and two councilmembers.

Perham City Manager Jonathon Smith says the structure is rare for cities his size, but the focus provided by the groups and dedicated staff has worked well.

“I am able to be out and involved with the groups. I can talk and brain­storm with them and have that sounding board,” Smith says. He sees his role as providing leadership and ideas.

Smith says that housing, which is a priority in Perham, is a key factor in eco­nomic development. The EDA and HRA overlap in some ways, but they have to work together with developers.

Council as EDA

In Pelican Rapids (population 2,523), the members of the City Council serve as the EDA, says City Administrator Don Solga. There is also a private eco­nomic development corporation (EDC) in Pelican Rapids.

Solga admits there are challenges in the way they are organized. But having a private organization involved in working with the city EDA can be helpful if they are active.

“For me, because I wear so many hats, there isn’t enough time in the day to get to it all,” Solga says. “If the community is going to grow, it has to be a priority.”

He sees the value of having a staff member dedicated to economic develop­ment, although Pelican Rapids does not currently have one.

Contracted EDA staff

Some cities have found that contracting with economic development experts works well for them. For example, the nonprofit organization Community and Economic Development Associates (CEDA) provides this service to Min­nesota cities and counties. It currently serves more than three dozen rural cities ranging in population from under 1,000, such as LeRoy, to over 6,000, such as Stewartville.

“Basically, we are all consultants. We fill the need for smaller, rural commu­nities,” says Mary Kennedy of CEDA. Kennedy is the director of training and professional development for CEDA, but she also serves as the economic develop­ment specialist for the City of Blue Earth (population 3,207).

CEDA employees all operate as in-house staff for cities, working onsite in their designated communities. Most work full-time for one city, but some job-share, while others serve multiple cities.

Kennedy says CEDA tailors its staff to the needs of the city. One benefit of CEDA is that the organization itself offers a network to lean on across the state to address economic development.

In her time in Blue Earth, Kennedy has been active in developing new housing, working with entrepreneurs on new business development, recruiting new business, and organizing business train­ing, among other activities.

Strong teamwork is critical

Regardless of the structure or staff involved, one thing is clear when it comes to economic development: a strong team needs to be in place to get things done.

The key, says Solga of Pelican Rapids, “is having people that really want to get involved and make things happen.”

No matter who is on your town team of economic development, the key is energizing those people and boards to work together toward a common goal. There is no one right answer, but there can be one right result: new economic development for your town team.

CJ Holl is the city administrator of Wells, Minnesota (population 2,400).