Region points to more signs of economic opportunity

While the Twin Cities and Duluth have historically been the bosses when it comes to Minnesota economic activity, five counties nestled in between are now getting a second look by developers and site selectors for a whole host of reasons.
Over the last two decades, the GPS 45:93 region of Minnesota—Chisago, Isanti, Kanabec, Mille Lacs and Pine counties—has enjoyed tremendous population growth.  From 1990 to 2010 the 5-county region welcomed more than 54,600 new people.  The region’s population increased over twice as fast as the state average, jumping nearly 50 percent compared with 21.2 percent statewide.
All but one county in the region were among the 11 fastest-growing counties in the state (out of 87), Chisago County (up 76.6 percent), Isanti (up 45.9 percent), Pine (up 39.9 percent), and Mille Lacs (up 39.8 percent).
With that growth, the Twin Cities pushed a little further into the countryside and Mille Lacs County was added to what is now a 16-county Twin Cities metropolitan statistical area (MSA) because now more than a quarter of its workforce commutes to the core counties of the MSA.   Chisago County was added to the metro in 1973 and Isanti County in 1983.
“Yes, urban Minnesota is reaching ever more toward us but it is because of what is offered here,” explained Nathan Johnson, president of GPS 45:93.  “Places like Mille Lacs County, and much of our region, are gateways to Minnesota’s natural amenities.”
As an example, Johnson pointed to the north end of Mille Lacs County which borders Lake Mille Lacs, a statewide destination for those who love nature, fishing or other forms of outdoor recreation.
Johnson is also the community development director for the City of Pine City, in Pine County, which borders the Twin Cities MSA to the south.  Both Pine and Mille Lacs counties are home to a Grand Casino, the largest employers in the region.   Other major employers include Hazelden, and the more recent additions of Polaris Industries and Anderson Windows.
“With growth comes more opportunity,” described Johnson.  “We now have more workers for jobs, and a more qualified workforce.”
And while much of rural Minnesota is losing jobs, the GPS 45:93 region—a mix of suburban, exurban and rural—is bucking the trend.   Even the two most rural counties in the region, Pine and Kanabec, gained jobs between November 2012 and November of last year, according to the latest employment figures released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Besides natural amenities, the region has ample transportation amenities.  It is on Interstate Highway 35 and BNSF Railway’s mainlines between Minneapolis and Duluth, and there is high-speed passenger rail as well as commuter rail in the planning stages.
“The GPS 45:93 region is a place of promise for companies ready to relocate or expand just north of the Minneapolis-Saint Paul urban core,” said Johnson.  “There is a reason this part of the state keeps growing, due to our highly-regarded small towns, award-winning schools, reasonably-priced houses and ready-access to employment opportunities here and in the nearby Greater MSP region.”
“We also have some of the closest state certified-shovel ready land to Minneapolis and St. Paul,” Johnson said.  “We have hundreds of acres available in our industrial parks.”
Also, Pine Technical College and Anoka-Ramsey Community College’s Cambridge Campus are offering training for the benefit of the region’s employers.  Pine Technical College recently opened the doors to the Pine Innovation Center, an entrepreneurial center and technology business incubator to serve start-up companies.
At its most recent executive committee meeting in Cambridge, May 30, members of GPS 45:93 debated the merits of adding more incentives and tools to recruit business, including the possibility of a regional equity fund.
The concern is that while the region may be a good fit for all other reasons, it has the potential to lose businesses because it cannot put in an equity injection into a new business prospect.  No decisions were made at that meeting to establish such a fund but one of GPS 45:93’s partners claimed to offer a suitable equity fund alternative in the interim.
“If we have a project that is worthy, we can find the dollars,” asserted Sandy Voigt, Development Officer at the Initiative Foundation, an affiliate member of GPS 45:93.
GPS 45:93 is a multi-county regional economic development consortium whose mission is to better position the region to attract high-wage, technology based jobs; collaborate on business retention and expansion; recruit new businesses; and encourage entrepreneurial activity.
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