The St. Cloud Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) is home to strong, vibrant communities that offer a quality of life that would not be possible without the collaborative approach that has been taken to secure economic growth and social development. Thinking and acting regionally has been the secret to its success.
Leading the way is the Greater St. Cloud Development Corporation (GSDC) and its more than 250 business and community partners. GSDC brings together the business community, the public sector, education, healthcare, social services, and non-profits, to respond to the needs of the business community.
By marketing and promoting the greater St. Cloud region’s many assets and resources, administering incentives, and standardizing processes to streamline business development, GSDC is having a significant impact in terms of business development and attraction, downtown revitalization, innovation, talent, transportation, and workforce wellbeing.
By striking a balance between economic growth and community wellbeing, the region is amongst the top performers on a state and national scale. The St. Cloud region is one of the fastest growing regions in the state of Minnesota, and outpaces both the state and the nation in terms of job and wage growth. From 2010 to 2016, 12,723 jobs were added in the region, with average weekly wages increase of $151.
“It’s not just about growing jobs,” noted Patti Gartland, president of GSDC. “One of our other primary objectives is to grow average wages in our community and that translates to quality of life. The jobs we’re trying to attract are providing a good living wage for those here.”
Located in central Minnesota, the greater St. Cloud region enjoys access to highways 10, 23, 15, and I-94, as well as BNSF rail. GSDC has joined the I-94 West Coalition to advocate for the continued expansion of I-94 and the extension of Northstar rail service into St. Cloud. Public and private transit development is also on its transportation radar. Several years ago, GSDC successfully restored TSA service at the St. Cloud Regional Airport. Today, more than 30,000 passengers have taken flight with Allegiant Air and Sun Country and air transportation remains a major focus of the organization.
“We continue to pursue funding to complete a comprehensive market-based air transportation optimization planning study and strategy plan to be able to grow utilization of the St. Cloud airport,” said Gartland.
“The future is going to be here one way or another and if we take the right actions now, we can determine what our preferred future is going to look like and I think that’s kind of the theme of what we’re doing around transportation,” highlighted Brian Myres, chair of GSDC and owner of Myres Consulting, of a talk given by Glen Heimstra at GSDC’s recent Transportation Summit.
He continued, “St. Cloud has always been known as a regional retail hub, but it has also established itself as a regional medical center hub. CentraCare Health pulls from a very large area and there are a lot of great jobs there and they make great contributions to the community.”
The economy in greater St. Cloud is diverse, with a strong manufacturing base, health and life sciences, financial, insurance and business services, information technology, value-added agriculture, logistics and fulfillment. Just as the economy is diverse, so too is the population, which contributes greatly to the arts scene, culture, and vitality of the community.
“There is a real synergy with the amount of diversity of experiences and industries and individuals and people sort of coming together. There is a concerted effort as demographics change, both racial and ethnic, and age. The community has been very thoughtful about that and how we actually leverage that change and those opportunities for the betterment of the greater community,” explained Heather Pieper-Olson, chair of GSDC’s marketing committee and associate vice-president, institutional advancement at College of St. Benedict.
Indeed, the St. Cloud MSA is home to a relatively young, diverse, well-educated, talented, healthy, and productive population that has enriched the social fabric that ties the various communities together. This demographic is a target of GSDC’s retention efforts.
“We’ve got over 25,000 college students in the region and six higher education institutions. Combined with very solid primary and secondary schools, the whole town-gown connection is really something that we’ve been working on and engaging with which is starting to pay dividends for the community,” said Myres.
Gartland credited the establishment of ISELF at St. Cloud State University as a relatively new asset that is bringing opportunity to the region. ISELF, the Integrated Science and Engineering Laboratory Facility, is an effort to address real-world business and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) research challenges by helping to encourage the development of the region’s greatest asset: human capital.
“Obviously, economic development is what we are focused on but we are hyper aware of the fact that the main driver in that is talent: our people. That’s our main asset and resource and the common thread that I see as I look at all of GSDC’s initiatives is really about how to leverage that talent at all levels,” shared Pieper-Olson.
She continued, “We make sure that our employees and our citizens in the community are healthy, happy and fulfilled in their work because they are, in fact, more productive and more engaged as a result.” GSDC’s focus on workplace wellbeing has been very meaningful.
Sonja Gidlow, director of strategic relations and communications with GSDC, commented on the recent Workplace Wellbeing Summit. “We had nearly 500 people in attendance. This particular initiative is going very well. We’re seeing terrific momentum,” making the event a great success.
Out of that summit, Centracare launched a community-wide initiative called Feeling Good Minnesota which will benefit GSDC and its efforts. A total of 342 leaders in the region have signed wellbeing pledges, 3600 employees across 43 organizations have taken part in wellbeing assessments, and 110 individuals have become WELCOA (Wellness Council of America) trained and certified.
In 2012, the Center for Non-Profit Excellence and Social Innovation (CNESI) invited GSDC to be the major sponsor of its Innovation Summit where Aaron Hurst was invited to discuss his work The Purpose Economy, to which Pieper-Olson made reference.
“It’s that idea that we can drive innovation and create opportunities for meaningful careers and organizations where we really take into account relationships, community, impact, personal growth. One of the things that we really do have going for us is that there is this place for personal growth and development that serves the greater community and I think that is one of the things that really sets us apart as a community,” she said.
Volunteerism is another key component of the greater St. Cloud region’s success. Gartland explained that, “We have enjoyed nearly 37,000 hours of executive volunteer engagement through GSDC since our inception in 2011 and when you quantify that, put a value association to that, that’s in excess of $1.5 million.”
GSDC has done a great job of engaging the business community by conducting over 350 site visits and responding to 78 business attraction inquiries since its founding. Gartland cited the examples of Blattner Energy, Anderson Trucking Services, CentraCare Health, Arctic Cat, and Microbiologics as companies that have all undergone recent expansions.
In fact, since 2011, capital investment in the downtown has surpassed $73 million, with over 620 businesses choosing to locate in the downtown core. The downtown is benefiting from the construction of a new housing project that brings urban living to the city’s core. The Lofts Condominium is located in the heart of downtown and offers owner-occupied condominium loft units just steps away from retail, dining and entertainment opportunities.
Additionally, a new YMCA and aquatic center is nearing completion near the downtown and the River’s Edge parking ramp, a much needed addition that will both serve the River’s Edge Convention Center and the broader downtown community, is up and running.
A new initiative being launched by GSDC is a highly-anticipated website that will further market the breadth of assets that make the St. Cloud region great. The regional web portal will serve as a gateway into the area.
“The development of a new regional website will serve to be that one-stop shop for anyone looking for information or connections about our region,” noted Gartland. “It will focus on our region and all the reasons why folks would want to live here, work here, engage here, and grow their business here.”
Gidlow went on to highlight ongoing efforts to take advantage of the region’s natural endowments. “There is a very strong group working on developing the shoreline of the Mississippi river that runs along the east side of St. Cloud. It also runs through Sauk Rapids and Sartell and historically, we have faced away from the river but now we’re recognizing that it is one of the most well-known rivers in the world and it’s running right through our community.”
“There is also some catalytic development taking place in proximity to the river that GSDC has been engaged with in partnership with the City of St. Cloud to look at some of those underutilized river parcels that could be redeveloped and better capitalized on the river as an asset and amenity in our region to further fuel our downtown vitality,” said Gartland.
GSDC has identified a recipe for success in terms of economic growth and community development, one that should be emulated and replicated by other communities and regions that endeavor to be a great place to call home for businesses and residents alike.
GSDC is “in the business of growing business,” and collaboration has been key to its success in this regard. As it embarks on reformulating its strategic plan, the future continues to look bright for the greater St. Cloud region and the people who call it home.