At the heart of economic development is developing opportunities that meet the challenges of the community,” Aitkin County Growth (ACG) Executive Director Barb Carr explained.
Since its establishment more than 30 years ago, the non-profit organization has assisted approximately 100 entrepreneurs in launching business endeavors in the area –a number of which have grown to be successful.
Carr joined ACG last year, and the organization has taken a closer look at how to best move the economic development of the community forward. For Carr, this meant identifying current challenges which hinder local businesses and finding solutions that fit within ACG’s mission to improve the quality of life through job creation, economic diversification and area development.
Through meetings with various business owners, common issues identified across the board were: shortage of workforce housing, availability of childcare in the area, lack of access to training for skilled workers, and creating state-certified Shovel Ready land for business development, Carr said.
PROVIDING SKILLS TO SUCCEED
Aitkin County Growth is reaching out to various organizations and post-secondary schools to provide adult education.
“We’ve invested in our incubator building and partnered with willing organizations to bring the education to Aitkin to help reduce the cost for area employers to develop the skills needed to support their business,” Carr said.
ACG plans to offer local CDL training in the future to build on the local trucking industry, and is exploring healthcare classes. Microsoft Excel training is scheduled for March. Ultimately, offering opportunities that build the professional skills of local residents will improve employee retention by reducing travel time to and from work, Carr explained.
Recently, ACG has teamed up with Pine Technical and Community College to provide continuing education and customized training opportunities in Aitkin with support from the Blandin Foundation. It has also partnered with the University of Minnesota, the Small Business Development Center, and Advanced Minnesota Hibbing.
“There is a new focus on employees and removing the barriers to success in the workforce. These trainings will help develop employees and provide more job opportunities for the local workforce,” Carr said.
ADDRESSING WORKFORCE HOUSING
Partly due to its aging population, many high-skilled positions are filled with employees from outside the Aitkin County area. These individuals often encounter difficulty finding local housing that fits within their needs, Carr said. Recognizing this as a barrier to the economic development of businesses in the community, ACG is actively working towards solutions that align with its mission.
ACG funded $15,000 of the $20,000 needed to conduct the Comprehensive Housing Needs Analysis for Aitkin, supported by $5,000 from the city of Aitkin. The 160-page draft of the document projects the housing demand from 2018 to 2030, and gives recommendations on the amount and type of housing that could be built in Aitkin to satisfy demand for current and future residents. According to Mayfield Research and Consulting, LLC, there is a demand for approximately 370 housing units in Aitkin through 2030.
A portion of the costs paid by ACG for the housing study gathered specific information about the organization’s property on 321 Minnesota Ave. N. in Aitkin, the former home of the turkey processing plant. Presently, it is rented by artists, North of Ordinary, Ritter’s Sewer and Excavating and the Archery Club.
AGC is working toward developing its Minnesota Ave. property. One option is to turn the property into 30 two to three room market rate rentals. Opting for market rate rentals fits within ACG’s mission by increasing workforce housing in the area.
“Market rate here is reasonable. It is less restrictive than low income housing and allows tenants to have higher paying jobs and will help with employee retention,” Carr said.
The building is currently zoned as industrial. Since Aitkin County is within an Opportunity Zone, the organization is seeking partners interested in investing capital gains funds for a 10-year commitment for the single project.
RURAL DAYCARE DILEMMA
Expanding childcare options will also help support the local workforce, Carr said. Many employees with young children, such as those in the medical health field, may be limited to working day shifts due to the lack of evening childcare in the area.
Aitkin Health Services is interested in renovating its building to accommodate a day care center, which would provide extended hours beyond traditional day care providers, from 5:30 a.m. - 11 p.m. To support this initiative, ACG has donated $5,000 towards construction costs and purchase of childcare equipment for the new day care. Those interested in partnering in the childcare project can contact ACG.
READY FOR BUSINESS
Aitkin County Growth has completed the Shovel Ready Certification for the property on Bunker Hill near Riverwood Healthcare Center and Aitkin Iron Works. The area is more likely to attract business startups, expansions and relocations by offering Shovel Ready status through Minnesota Employment and Economic Development. Shovel Ready refers to commercial and industrial sites that have had all of the planning, zoning, surveys, title work, environmental studies, soils analysis and public infrastructure engineering completed prior to putting the site up for sale.
“The hardest thing about development is it takes time,” Carr said.
Shovel Ready properties, like the one on Bunker Hill Drive in Aitkin, are ideal because it takes much of the time, expense, unpredictability and risk out of development, Carr explained.
Adding to the ease of locating and advertising land for development, and commercial space for lease or purchase, is MakeitinMN.com. This website is a free resource that ACG hopes will connect those interested in developing the area.
“I think things are progressing in the right direction,” Carr said. “You have people in this community who are willing to step up, and we hope we are building a foundation that the community supports.”