Five-year development strategy begins to form

The five-county East Central Regional Development Commission is kicking off another five-year strategic-planning process.
The process will end with the 2016 Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy, said Robert Voss, executive director of the commission. Voss appeared before the Mille Lacs County Board at its April 19 meeting.
“We’re going to be working on this throughout the summer,” Voss said of the plan.
The commission is the economic development commission for Chisago, Isanti, Kanabec, Mille Lacs and Pine counties. It is governed by a 24-member board with representatives from counties, cities, economic development authorities and other entities.
The commission updates its strategic plan every five years and is embarking upon the process now to gather input from counties, cities, townships and others about needed and potential development during the next five years. Voss said the organization is “very interested” in Mille Lacs County’s effort to form an economic development authority.
The commission received a planning grant from the federal EDA that will fund a staff person who will work with the five counties to update the strategic plan. Voss said the basic, underlying objective is to “strengthen economic conditions.” The process involves discussing projects that add strength and may meet the criteria for different kinds of federal funding. He has visited county boards, held meetings with city officials and said the commission will send out surveys, as well.
The Mille Lacs County commissioners asked at the workshop what kind of possible projects should be included in the plan. Voss said the business incubator at Pine Technical and Community College, as well as the industrial park in Cambridge are projects that were included in a past plan and then came to fruition with the help of federal funds.
“There are 100 percent grants available for tribal units of government, too,” Voss said.
He pointed to the last plan done in 2011, which is on the commission’s website and consists of 78 pages with data on demographics, population, unemployment, occupations, education level, physical features and more for each of the five counties. It also lists some of the projects that were discussed at that time.
The plan listed potential projects, including increasing municipal sewer capacity in Bock; developing an industrial park along Highway 169 in Milaca; upgrading water infrastructure in Pease; extending water, sewer and road infrastructure along 21st Avenue in Princeton; and redeveloping a former wastewater pond in the tribal community into a green-industry park.
Another project listed on the 2011 regional development plan was extending a Princeton Municipal Airport runway for better business access – that project will be completed this summer. Voss said he remembers being a part of a team that made a presentation to a big aircraft company considering a move to the Princeton airport, and that is a typical endeavor in which he’d be involved.
He said people might also recognize efforts to bring, keep or re-establish Coin-Tainer, Pease Produce, a farmer’s market and other businesses.
Voss said Mille Lacs County is doing some exciting things and also has challenges like every county. He said a major intent of the strategic-plan kickoff is to gather all the information possible.
Some of the same projects, as well as possible broadband improvements and a scenic byway in the Mille Lacs Lake area, are likely to appear on the 2016 plan as possibilities. Voss described the comprehensive economic development strategy as a big-picture, aerial view of development. The plan presents data and ideas so that small and large entities can work together toward common goals, specifically economic development that builds tax base.
The statewide economic development plan, DevelopMN 2016, is available on the commission’s website and is a compilation of the priorities reported from around the state. It analyzes four main cornerstones of development: human capital, economic competitiveness, community resources and foundational assets. The data reveal different strengths and interests, such as how wind energy might be of great importance in one part of the state while tourism is the priority in another.
Projects that are a part of the strategic plan not only have a better chance of winning federal funds, they also can be eligible for other funding, Voss said. For example, if there’s a regional strategy to develop trails and a town or city wants to do one, those interests could possibly be matched to DNR, recreation-related or other kinds of grants.
Voss said Richard Baker, community development coordinator, will be involved with most local meetings, where cities and other entities will be encouraged to write down their five-year wish list and “dream big” as they do it. Anyone who has input about the 2016 Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy that is in formation can either talk to their township, city or county officials or contact the East Central Regional Development Commission directly.