Minnesota's Department of Employment and Economic Development commissioner Steve Grove looked pretty casual during his Wednesday visit to Rice County, but the Northfield native was definitely all business.

Dressed in jeans and a button-up shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows, Grove, who grew in Rice County's college city, had a casual, even familiar air, all while addressing the state of business in the state and region.

Coming from business, Grove said he's still surprised at how slowly government moves, but in almost eight months on the job has found that sometimes it doesn't take a change in state statute to get things done in St. Paul.

Grove said he brings a "fresh perspective" to DEED, and pointed to a 2020 Strategic Plan his department released earlier this month.

In his first few months as DEED commissioner, Grove said he's focused on what's working and what's not. But more than that, Grove said, DEED need to measure its success.

Its three goals, or as DEED calls them, key results, are

• Increase the number of job-seekers using DEED's CareerForce resources by 10%

• Increase the job placement rate for every DEED workforce program to 80%

• Increase the number of employers who are hiring directly from DEED's workforce systems by 20%

The cities

Rice County has tapped into DEED's resources quite a bit recently. It's helped the city of Lonsdale develop its business park, provided workforce development grants for South Central College and worked closely with Faribault and Rice County leaders to land a second Daikin Applied plant.

In October 2018, it announced a $1.05 million grant to help pay for infrastructure to the new with Daikin facility on Acorn Trail in Faribault. While the plant, set to come online later this year, is expected to bring 132 full-time jobs, state and local leaders have said it will attract additional growth in the community.

While Lonsdale Mayor Tim Rud said his city's appreciates the financial assistance from DEED, he was equally grateful for Grove's Monday morning visit to the growing community where they toured Minnesota Millwork & Fixtures, a 52,000-square foot plant that makes custom tables, chairs and booths mainly for the restaurant industry.

The housing boom continues in Lonsdale, the only one of the four Rice County cities that could make that claim. So far this year, the city has issued 40 new home permits, according to City Administrator Joel Erickson. Last year at this time, it has issued 35. Erickson's also met with a developer who's interested in building three more residential subdivisions.

Business development has been a greater challenge for Lonsdale, he said. The city and Economic Development Authority are currently working on a business retention program and has two businesses interested in sites at its business park.

Faribault's successes have been well documented. Three of its largest employers: Faribault Foods, SageGlass and Daikin have either completed or are in the midst of expansion project. A new Kabota dealership, now under construction, will sell and service every forklift in the county, according to Economic and Community Development Director Deanna Kuennen. At the airport, SteinAir is open and the City Council is ready to approve the design of a new arrival/departure building Tuesday night.

"The airport's being rebuilt and becoming the economic development driver we envisioned a few years ago," Kuennen said, referencing the damage done by Sept. 20, 2018 tornadoes.

But like three of its Rice County neighbors' Faribault needs housing. While it's vacancy rate hovers around 1 percent, a 44-unit market rate apartment complex in under construction. Another, with 76 market-rate units will soon break ground. And in November, two developers will learn whether they've qualified for law-income housing tax credits.

"There's so much happening, so much momentum," Kuennen said. "The way we're getting things done is by working together."

Morristown and Northfield, too, are working on attracting developers to their communities. While Morristown is considering abating some fees for new home construction, Northfield is focused on multi-family infill. Construction costs are just too high for developers of single-family homes, Economic Development Director Mitzi Baker said.

Northfield, according to Baker said, is pressing forward with attracting tourists to its charming downtown and riverfront district. Business opportunities, she said, appear to be in medical/technical and avionics.

Filling the need

Pulling it all together is South Central College. President Annette Parker listed many of the programs the school's two campuses provide to train and retrain are workers.

Its enrollment continues to rise, said Parker. Up 19% in 2018, and 3.5% at the Faribault campus over the first day of fall semester 2018, Parker said.

But while the educator is well versed in the need for economic development, she wants DEED to ensure it's assisting community colleges like South Central in offering programs that fit the needs of Minnesota's workforce and its employers.

While some programs work for recent high school graduates, those same programs may not be right for adults who don't have a sustainable wage, she said.

"We have to create training in the areas of need. A lot of this is not rocket science," said Grove.

"If we think the future is in technology, but we don't have a training program in technology, what are we doing?"

Reach Regional Managing Editor Suzanne Rook at 507-333-3134. Follow her on Twitter @rooksuzy. 

©Copyright 2019 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved. 

Reach Regional Managing Editor Suzanne Rook at 507-333-3134. Follow her on Twitter @rooksuzy

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