State officials seek ways to help with Jackson's growing pains
JACKSON — State commissioners from the Minnesota Department of Transportation, Department of Employment and Economic Development and the Housing and Finance Authority were in Jackson Friday afternoon for a town hall meeting with city, county, economic development and business leaders to address a multitude of growing pains in the community.
“It’s like Miracle-Gro got spread over Industrial Park and exploded,” said Donnie Schoenrock, second ward alderman for the city of Jackson. Unfortunately, he added, it didn’t get spread over retail or housing development in the community.
Schoenrock moved to Jackson from Alexandria in 2006 and said it has been amazing to see the growth in that time. The biggest challenge he sees is in housing development.
“To have a private investor come in and have it cash-flow is impossible, (as well as) keeping it in a range for this area that people can afford,” he said.
Jackson steadily created jobs while much of the country was in a recession. While the continued job growth is welcome, the community is struggling to attract a workforce in a tight housing situation and not a lot of retail to entice new people to town.
While local manufacturer AGCO is fueling the job growth — its workforce has expanded by more than 50 percent in the past three years — the housing pinch is seen in other sectors of the local economy.
Jackson County Central Schools Superintendent Todd Meier said he hired eight new teachers in the district last fall. Of those, one actually moved to Jackson. The other seven found housing across the state line in Spirit Lake — a 20-mile commute, one way.
“If employees go to Spirit Lake, they have a house there, they get married there, they have kids there … and the kids go to school there,” Meier said. “I bet Spirit Lake loves us.”
Meier told the state contingent that the people of Jackson are willing to try about anything to get additional housing into the community and to keep pushing growth.
“I don’t know many rural communities who are growing from a school and an industrial standpoint, but we are,” Meier said.
The city of Jackson has now reached its maximum allowable tax abatement, so if businesses want to come in but request abatement, the city has nothing to offer.
“We’ve never thought about bringing you in and asking for money — that’s not what this is about,” Meier told the commissioners.
Still, Rocky Sieler, chairman of the Jackson Economic Development Authority (EDA), said if the state would consider financing programs for residential development, it would be a great help to Jackson.
“There’s commercial programs available, but nothing for residential,” he said.
AGCO is doing what it can to spur residential development, recently offering $220,000 toward a new 48-unit townhome project planned in the community. Working with the Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership, construction on the nearly $7.3 million project is hoped to begin this year, with completion in 2015. The new construction will include 14 market-based units and 34 income-based housing units.
“Seventy percent of our employees in the industrial park live outside of our zip code,” Sieler said. “If we could get those people to locate in Jackson, it would really stimulate growth … and help the tax base.”
He said all of the housing the EDA has created in Jackson is full and there are waiting lists.
Meanwhile, the community enacted minimum rental housing standards a couple of years ago and places high importance on getting rental stock to better standards.
“We keep using different programs to get the growth that we need, but we’re not keeping up with the growth that we have,” said Jackson EDA member DeeAnna Bakken.
While housing is proving to be a primary concern in the community, developing infrastructure is equally so.
The Jackson Economic Development Corporation recently purchased a 100-acre farm just south of its Industrial Drive that has been “an island” for years. On Friday, a colorful map was draped on one wall to show the EDC’s plans for the property, which will include a mixture of residential, commercial-retail and industrial lots for development.
“It’s just a concept at this point, but I can see this filled within 10 years,” said Sue Pirsig, economic development coordinator for the city of Jackson. Pirsig said the land isn’t yet city property, although it will be annexed in.
Constructing a primary street through the property, along with the necessary infrastructure, is estimated to cost $2.2 million.
“It’s very frustrating to have businesses calling — and we’ve had companies very interested in that location — but when they’re interested, they want to build this spring,” said Sandy Phillips, Jackson EDC member. “We say, ‘Well, we can get the infrastructure if we get this grant.”’
Competition for businesses to come to Jackson is a real issue, added Eric Fisher, operations manager for Jackson’s AGCO. Thanks to the state’s easing of a warehouse tax, he said the company was able to bring one of their suppliers to Round Lake in January, and it has several other suppliers looking to move either to Jackson or to Minnesota.
“That was a good thing for Minnesota,” Fisher said, adding that there remains a border-battle with Iowa. “Some of the communities in Iowa seem to be a little more aggressive and have a little more flexibility. If we had infrastructure here, it would be a no-brainer to have it right next to the factory.”
District 23 Sen. Julie Rosen, whose district includes the city of Jackson, told commissioners that with the competition, “We have to move and move very quickly.”
“The big opportunity is the spill-over business,” Fisher added. “They want to be close, and it makes sense to be close. Jackson is really set to either take off or not, and we really need help and a catalyst to go (forward).”
Jackson City Council member Fred Bern pointed out that the city hasn’t sat idly by as some of these issues have come to the forefront. Four significant street projects have been completed in the last four years, and the city was required by the Department of Natural Resources to remove a dam.
“We’ve lost some of our money by taking care of the necessities,” Bern said. “Our money is running low.”
He asked the commissioners to provide whatever help they could — including bringing more people to Jackson to fill the jobs that are open.
“Bring them to rural America, to a neat little town and have a steady income,” Bern said. “It would help the community out in all aspects. If there’s a way you can … send people down that are good workers, we’d love to have them.”
MnDOT Commissioner Charlie Zelle, who had to leave the meeting early, commended the people of Jackson for their vision and collaboration. He expressed interest in being a partner as infrastructure and transportation issues are worked through.
“From an economic development perspective, you are in a really good position,” DEED Commissioner Katie Clark-Sieben said. “Working together is exactly what it takes to get your community to the next level.”
Clark-Sieben spoke of the economic development incentives available from the state, including a new Minnesota Job Creation Fund that could help the city to lure new business to town.
“I think you’re doing all the right things,” she said. “Know you have a continued partner in DEED.”
Mary Tingerthal, Minnesota Housing Finance Agency Commissioner, said there is often infrastructure available in a community that isn’t being used, and she encouraged city leaders not to overlook those options. She also asked leaders how the state and city might share in the risk by having a program to fund infrastructure.
As for housing, Tingerthal suggested the city look at the state’s land trust model, which helps keep the cost of single family construction lower.
“We finance properties in land trusts, and there are programs that can help the land trusts buy District 23A Rep. Bob Gunther, who recently had Jackson added to his district, said the community has come a long way with the tools it has, but there could be some programs developed through MHFA that would make it easier.
“If we have to build a house without a garage, a gravel driveway and without a basement, then so be it,” Gunther said. “It’s the biggest housing and economic development problem you have in Minnesota — the need for workforce housing.”
Pirsig said a housing study conducted in 2013 will help the city as it moves forward, and the 48-unit townhome project is a step in the right direction.
Still, she said, “48 rental units doesn’t come anywhere near satisfying the needs.”
Rosen told commissioners that in small towns across southwest Minnesota, people don’t ask for much — they tend to take care of themselves.
“When a community life this says we need help, I can absolutely say they need help,” she said. “Nothing would be more grand for this state than to see some collaboration — thinking outside the box.”
Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer may be reached at 376-7330.