I applaud my colleague, Erica Zweifel, for adding the discussion item about transferring the powers of the Economic Development Authority to the City Council; it always takes some guts to disturb the status quo and adding the element of surprise by adding it to the agenda at the meeting helped get both the Council’s and the EDA’s attention. This proposal is also on the Tuesday worksession agenda. (Read the News and Locally Grown coverage, too.)
But why do it? Because the EDA has not presented any clear principles for economic development, has not followed the economic policy planning which has been done, makes decisions in an opaque and unaccountable way and levies your tax dollars to do it.
Having the Council serve as the economic development authority is only one strategy the City might employ to (re)gain control of economic development policy in Northfield, but I’d argue it is also the quickest and easiest way to accomplish this goal in the short term.
1. Background: The EDA is not like the Planning Commission. The PC is an advisory board (with some decision making authority on variances) with no direct access to financial resources. So, while the PC has the primary responsibility for drafting/updating the Comprehensive Plan and the Land Development Code, these are both documents presented to the Council for the Council’s review and adoption. In individual land use decisions, the PC is the body which holds the public hearings and takes public input, then makes a recommendation to the Council. The EDA, on the other hand, has the power to levy taxes, sell bonds, and spend money. The EDA has a budget which is approved by the Council annually, but which it can then deploy as it sees fit (See Minn. Stat. 461.091 et. seq. for the statutory details). Having levy and bonding authority should raise the bar for the EDA in terms of accountability.
2. Transparency and accountability: The EDA changed their meeting structure to shift the bulk of the discussion to subcommittees consisting of no more than three EDA members plus the EDA director; subcommittees operate under the open meeting law threshold of a quorum; meetings are not noticed nor minutes published. When recommendations do come to the full EDA for action, the rationale behind them is not always clear and the tone of the discussion at the EDA suggests that EDA members themselves are somewhat suspicious about how recommendations are made.
The other more important piece is the policy part. The 1990 enabling resolution for the EDA states these objectives:
LEADERSHIP: The EDA shall unite the leadership of the concerned groups within the community to develop a clear expression of priorities and programs for economic development.
REGIONAL STRATEGY: The EDA shall develop a regional strategy for future growth and development that is based on the area’s strengths and assets.
RETENTION: The EDA shall develop a program to help retain and expand viable existing Northfield businesses by evaluating and addressing their needs.
OUTREACH: The EDA shall endeavor to attract new commercial and industrial growth that fits Northfield’s goals.
REDEVELOPMENT: The EDA shall encourage and support commercial redevelopment city-wide, with emphasis on the downtown.
FINANCING: The EDA shall become self-supporting.
IMPACT: The EDA shall take into account the environmental effect, and the housing, schooling and infrastructure needs of commercial and industrial development.
How is the EDA is attempting to fulfill the Northfield Comprehensive Plan (and the Economic Development Plan) with its emphasis on sustainable development, compact growth, and enhancing the small town character of Northfield? Clear expression of priorities and programs? Redevelopment? Impact? These questions are, to me, unaddressed. When EDA members, Business Park Steering Committee members, and Council members have asked questions like these, there have been no answers and often dismissal of the questions.
3. Strategy: Having the Council take over economic development activities in the short term would allow the Council, the most accountable body, determine how to best manage economic development. For the longer term, I don’t know that the Council wants the added duties nor does it have the expertise to manage these issues for the long term. However, the Council can and should weigh in on what the City’s economic principles should be, how the EDA can help accomplish the goals of the Comprehensive Plan, and how dollars should be allocated to address these priorities.
In addition, having eliminated the position of City Planner and approved the early retirement of the Community Development director, this leaves the City with a reorganized department for community and economic development without a clear focus and with limited staff. Having the Council function as the EDA for a limited period would allow us to finish thinking through reorganization with the Interim City Administrator to better serve Council goals before recreating an EDA to do the majority of the day to day work.