It was a perceptive eye for the beauty of a region with over 300 lakes and the vision of its potential for settlement that enticed Delaware surveyors and brothers Alexander and William Kinkead to lay the foundation for a town in west central Minnesota in 1862 – four years after Minnesota became a state.
Named for the eldest brother, the town of Alexandria became a hub of commercial and social activity, and was incorporated as a city in 1909. As the county seat of Minnesota’s Douglas County, Alexandria continues to grow from its current population of over 12,000.
Indeed, in 2015, Site Selection Magazine ranked Alexandria as one of the fastest growing micropolitans in the nation, and Livability.com named it one of the ten best small towns in the country in 2013. But it’s not only Douglas County’s chain of lakes and cultural appeal that are the gems of Alexandria; as a regional trade centre, Alexandria’s ‘easy to get to’ location and strong economic growth across numerous sectors are both enticing and worthy of investment interest.
“The location of Alexandria is really key to a number of companies moving here,” says Alexandria Area Economic Development Commission’s (AAEDC) Executive Director, Nicole Fernholz. Interstate 94 lies directly south of the city, enabling access to larger metropolises such as Minneapolis-St. Paul, two and a half hours away, and Fargo-Moorhead, just an hour and half away. The north-south State Highway 29 and the east-west State Highway 27 both feed into the I-94 and currently, the 29 interchange is being rebuilt to accommodate four lanes. A completion date of late 2016 is expected. “It’s easy on, easy off, for those companies that [need] to transport their products,” explains Fernholz.
The full service Alexandria Municipal Airport (Chandler Field), that once served bombers during World War II, was established in 1976. Although not large, “it does the job for some of our larger manufacturers to get key people into our city,” says Fernholz. There is also a “very active rail that comes through providing services at least 12 times a day.”
The economic strength of Alexandria is evidenced by its many prominent sectors including healthcare, education, tourism and manufacturing. With over 6000 businesses in Douglas County with fewer than 10 employees, the entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well. At least 50 businesses have more than 250 employees.
Established in 1990, the non-profit AAEDC strives to ensure that the future of Alexandria and Douglas County is a sustainable one, with a focus on job creation and economic stability. This is achieved through strong partnerships with city, county and state governments, aligned with a number of attractive incentives for business. The AAEDC’s partnership with the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED), for instance, furthers the AAEDC’s mandate for economic development criteria for business attraction, expansion and retention. The Job Opportunity Building Zone (JOBZ) provided state and tax exemptions to qualified companies that brought opportunities to targeted areas in Greater Minnesota and, having expired in 2015, DEED replaced this initiative with the Job Creation Fund.
This award winning innovative program is recognized by the Economic Development Association of Minnesota (EDAM) and provides financial incentives for new and expanding companies that are instrumental in job creation and the construction, renovation or improvements of facilities. “We just helped a company through that process last month,” shares Fernholz. “They were the first designated Job Creation Fund recipient in our area.” The company to which Fernholz refers is Alexandria Industries, an aluminum fabrication company, established in 1966 and employing close to 500 individuals. The company has plans for a five-million-dollar expansion that will create an additional fifteen jobs.
In fact, the Alexandria area is one of the leaders in innovation in technology development, having five of the world’s leading manufacturers of automated packing machines. These leaders include Aagard Group, LLC; Brenton Engineering Company; Douglas Machine; ITW Heartland; and Massman Automation Designs.
Working closely with the Economic Development Authority (EDA), the AAEDC helps implement a number of incentives for local businesses, including tax abatement, tax increment financing (TIF) and use of revolving loan funds. “We do have a variety of redevelopment in our area, and we can take advantage of TIF for these projects. TIF redevelopment districts exist because a company has chosen to conserve the existing building and infrastructure rather than develop bare land. The City is able to eliminate a blighted area, and a developer can help offset redevelopment costs. We also have some economic districts in our area, and housing as well,” Fernholz says. “We are fortunate to have good working relationship with our cities and Douglas County to help make these projects happen.”
Fast permitting is also an option for developers. “You have developers who are itching to get digging, so it’s never quick enough for them, but it’s a pretty quick turnover.”
The Lakes Area Economic Development Authority (LAEDA) was created in 2003 to enable a structured model with designated EDA authority for townships and communities. It operates as AAEDC’s funding mechanism and is “a first of its kind partnership between cities and townships to levy in order to raise money for economic development. So that’s the city of Alexandria, the city of Garfield and the townships of Alexandria and LaGrand,” adds Fernholz. “They govern what we do as the financial arm behind the AAEDC.”
The Alexandria Industrial Park is conveniently located adjacent to the I-94 and Highway 29. There are approximately 16 acres available that are zoned as light industrial. The last acreage of this Industrial Park is owned by LAEDA which has plans for further development in 2016. “It’s the last zoned I-1 property in this area. When that gets developed then that Industrial Park will be pretty much full,” Fernholz confirms.
The Alexandria area prides itself on its diversification and is experiencing growth in a number of sectors. The manufacturing sector, for example, creates numerous primary jobs and subsequent secondary jobs. The education sector continues to grow and Fernholz explains that, “Our medical/healthcare sector is poised to really grow.” In fact, the Douglas County Hospital has been recognized as one of the top ten in the nation and has received this designation several times. “It continues to expand its services… it’s amazing how quickly that has happened in the last few years.”
The partnership the AAEDC has formed with the Alexandria Area High School benefits the AAEDC, the school district and the Alexandria community, by building a pipeline for future workforce in the area. The Academies of Alexandria began their second year in the Fall of 2015 with the community continuing to play a big role in the success of the school and the students. The Academy model that AAHS has implemented prepares students for their future, whether they continue their education or step directly out into the workforce. Students start with Freshman Exploration which will help them choose a pathway in their sophomore year – Business, Communication & Entrepreneurship; Engineering, Manufacturing Technologies and Natural Resources; or Health Sciences and Human Services.
Of course, a city’s downtown core is often a true representation of an area’s unique characteristics and the resounding voice of its past – a testament to a city’s quality of life. Alexandria’s downtown core was completely revitalized, in three phases, in 2014 after four years of planning. With the construction and resurfacing of the main street (Highway 29 – Broadway) the city of Alexandria decided to update its century-old underground infrastructure during this time while changing the face of the downtown. “The city of Alexandria worked closely with MnDot [Minnesota Department of Transportation] for the timing and the financial aspect of that project,” explains Fernholz. “The project wrapped up in October 2014 and [the downtown] is much more accessible for walkers, bikers and rollerbladers.”
As a testament to the vitality of the city’s downtown, there are no vacant storefronts, making the downtown “widely known as a location to shop, to eat and to enjoy,” adds Fernholz. All of this was achieved while maintaining the city’s historical and cultural identity. Known as the Complete Streets project, Alexandria’s downtown is a completely transformed architectural landscape that has led to increased traffic flow and proves to be a great place for business, shoppers and tourists.
Aside from the number of sectors that are driving Alexandria and Douglas County forward, one can’t negate the economic impact that Alexandria Technical and Community College has on the region. The College is one of Minnesota’s 31 institutions in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities higher education system, the largest provider in the state. It’s been estimated that over $70 million is generated into the local economy by the College’s presence.
With over 50 one- or two-year programs available, Alexandria College prepares students for the workforce. Its advisory council regularly meets and advises as to what programs are perceived as future requirements for the region. “I know many of our local companies work closely with [the College] on training their employees,” says Fernholz. “There’s a lot of communication, a lot of give and take to be sure we have the trained workforce we need. We also have a customized training program through the Technical College that our office specifically works with to offer soft skills training.” It’s all about the benefits of partnerships, she asserts. “We just work well together.”
And certainly, tourism is big business in Alexandria and Douglas County. Home to the Chain of Lakes, the area is a year-round mecca for those looking to enjoy such activities as boating, swimming, kayaking, fishing, golfing, hunting, and skiing. There are numerous trails and parks for hiking, cycling, or snowmobiling.
As to Alexandria’s being one of the fastest growing micropolitans in the nation, Fernholz attributes that to “the investment that our companies are putting into our area, the projects that they’re bringing, and the rehab that they’re doing to their buildings. The financial contribution they’re putting into our area allows us to continue to grow… we’re kind of a one-stop shop. We have a little bit of everything.”