In August of 2018, Business in Focus introduced the dynamic ‘Kandiyohi County & City of Willmar Economic Development Commission (EDC)’ – whose purpose is to develop and grow the region economically. This report back looks at the organization’s success and what is still to come.
At the time we learned about the #KanDo Mentality with which the EDC keeps the region growing. A year and a half later, it is clear that its efforts are as dynamic as ever, and continue to evolve.
The region as a whole has undertaken several initiatives to draw more business and residents to the area, and a major focus of those efforts has been on the City of Willmar – the county’s regional center, located in west central Minnesota, about two hours west of the Twin Cities.
Willmar, with a population of around 20,000, fits into the category of a micropolitan area – communities between 10,000 and 50,000. The county itself (including the city) has a total population of 43,000, so the whole area sits comfortably under the micropolitan umbrella.
According to POLICOM Corporation, an independent economics research firm that rates the economic strength of metropolitan and micropolitan areas across the country each year, Willmar was ranked #82 out of the 542 micropolitan areas in the country in 2020, and was #1 in metro and micropolitan areas in Minnesota in 2019.
Leaps and bounds
The city’s ranking has significantly improved over the past five years – it was ranked #135 in 2015 – and it’s easy to speculate that this rapid increase may be attributed to the efforts of the EDC.
A diverse range of industries feeds the economy of the region. The largest employer is Jennie-O Turkey Store, with 1,700 employees. An established retail sector, with department stores like Menards, Runnings, Target, Walmart, and Kohl’s, attracts shoppers for 60 miles around.
Kandiyohi County’s roots are in agriculture, still a strong base for the region. However, the sector with the most employees today is the medical industry, with about 22 percent of the jobs in Willmar.
“We also have a labor force that has been growing, and our economy has been growing,” says Aaron Backman, Executive Director of the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission. “We had an 8.2 percent increase in jobs between 2013 and 2018, which is slightly ahead of the state average. In terms of sales tax, we have close to a billion-dollars-worth that happens on an annual basis here.”
About 22 percent of the population in Willmar is Latino, and 10 percent is East African, and the region has an increasingly diverse workforce and business community as well.
Driven by diversity
“One of our strengths is our diversity,” says Connie Schmoll, Business Development Manager for the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission. “We have a lot of diverse cultures here. A lot of them are starting businesses or have businesses. We’re known as a welcoming community,” she says.
“And I think that’s had a positive impact on our school system,” added Backman. “With the growth of our diverse students here, that encouraged the community to build a new $27 million elementary school in 2017. If we didn’t have the diverse students, I think we would be laying off teachers, not building a school.” Over the last four years the county has had over $190 million worth of construction take place – a mixture of commercial development, industrial, institutional and housing.
“We have about $15 million in housing projects under construction right now, and that’s not just in Willmar,” says Backman. “We have some housing projects that are outside of Willmar too in our county. There was a $9.3 million project called 15th Street Flats that opened at the end of August 2019, with 47 units. We also have a $17 million senior-housing project that’s beginning 15 miles to the Northeast of us in the community of New London that will have 75 units. So we’re pleased to have that investment going on here.”
In 2019, the City of Willmar was designated as one of 128 Opportunity Zones in Minnesota by Governor Mark Dayton. As a result, the EDC decided it would step up and market Willmar’s Opportunity Zone in a significant way to investors, developers, and site selectors.
“We feel that to effectively market the Opportunity Zone, we need to do a national effort; it can’t be just focusing on people in Willmar,” says Backman. “We need to cast the net to a bigger audience. What we want to see is development occurring within the Zone, which basically encompasses the downtown area and a little bit more of Willmar,” he explains.
“If we approach this right, we will encourage significant development over the next two or three years in the Willmar OZ. And hopefully that leads to millions of dollars of investment in an area that is probably our poorest area in the community in terms of household income on average.”
Plans for enhancing the economic strength of the area are focused on three separate categories of activity: entrepreneurs, existing businesses, and the county’s efforts with the Opportunity Zone.
“We have a good diverse amount of businesses and services and interesting items,” says Schmoll. “We have a winery in our community and a couple of breweries. We have winter events and summer events that keep people coming into our area. We have wonderful concerts in our park in the summertime that bring 4,000 to 5,000 people together at one time. So we hope to continue everything we have for people to do here.”
People also come to the area because of the more economical housing and transportation options than in Minneapolis. “Many people come back to the area to have children,” says Schmoll. “They find it a safe community to live in, safer than the metro areas.”
Other attractions are the public and private school educational options, and a wide range of community parks and accessible playgrounds, including the largest fully accessible destination playground in a five-state area. “We have people that come 40 or 50 miles just for their kids to have an opportunity to play at that site because it is fully accessible [whether] kids are in wheelchairs or not,” says Backman.
In terms of post-secondary education, Ridgewater College is a community technical college (with two campuses, one in Willmar and one in Hutchinson) which is one of only eight community colleges in Minnesota that are seeing an increase in enrollment this year.
“Out of the 37 institutions in the Minnesota state system, most are seeing decreases, but they are on an increase,” says Backman. The website niche.com ranked Ridgewater College as the number one community college in Minnesota in 2019, and it also has one of the top ranked Computer-Aided Drafting (CAD) Associate Degree programs in the country.
When this publication last wrote about the EDC, it was embarking on some new projects such as the Lakeland Elementary School, the Carris Health Surgery Center, Schwieters Chevrolet, and the Little Crow Resort.
“What I can tell you is that all of those were successfully constructed,” says Backman. “Every time I pass by Lakeland Elementary School, I am so happy that the school is there. It looks beautiful, and it is full of students and doing what it’s supposed to be doing.” The Surgery Center was completed, as was Schwieters, and the Little Crow Resort was built as well, comprising a hotel, a conference center, and a restaurant and clubhouse.
The EDC has become well-known for creating entrepreneurial opportunities and has been a role model to other counties and EDCs.
“We have a strong collaboration in our community where our businesses are working closely with the schools to make sure that they are teaching the students for the current and future workforce in our area,” says Backman.
“I feel our businesses are so invested in our youth, and I think we have a lot of programs that help the youth feel like they’ve been supported in their education. And there are a lot of opportunities right here for them so they don’t have to leave our community.”
Those who work externally with the EDC feel that their role promoting the EDC’s efforts is an easier one, because the entire region is receptive to whatever they have to offer.
“I think from a big picture perspective, all of these stats are so positive and trending in the right direction simply because we have a community of diverse people and industries that are very forward thinking,” says Lindsey Donner of RedStar Creative, the marketing agency that works with the EDC. “They’re pushing hard to do bigger and better things. And the results are felt throughout the entire community in various ways, and throughout the region.”
With innovative businesses, good quality of life, a welcoming attitude, and a large number of opportunities on the horizon, it seems clear that in the next conversation with the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar EDC there will be more good-news stories to come.
That’s the #KanDo Mentality at work.