When new businesses come knocking on Kanabec County Economic Development Executive Director Jim Hartshorn’s door, he wants to be ready.
That preparation includes not just having the proper infrastructure in place to welcome commerce to Mora, Ogilvie and other cities within Kanabec County boundaries. It also includes ensuring that new workers will have access to affordable housing and childcare.
Bringing new businesses and housing opportunities to the county are just two of the issues that Hartshorn has been focused on since taking over the leadership role in the county’s Economic Development Authority last fall.
“Housing development was supposed to be my main focus coming here,” he said. “What I did coming in is I tapped the Twin Cities housing developers and local housing developers. I sat down with Kirsten Faurie (Mora Community Development director), and we mapped out locations where we would put housing developments.”
He said he connected first with 20 developers from the Metro area, with eight of them interested in driving to Kanabec County for a tour of the area and the various locations where housing could be added. He has also heard from county residents with acreages available for new housing.
“It doesn’t get any better than that,” he said. “I don’t have to knock on doors and ask, ‘Hey, do you want to sell?’”
One of the Twin Cities developers who toured the area has already made an offer on a site to construct townhouses. Another has mentioned interest in submitting an offer on a property. Still another is committed to developing a senior housing project. Hartshorn has helped that developer in applying for a $2,500 grant from the Initiative Foundation to conduct a market study on a housing study, a requirement of banks providing building loans. The developer matched that $2,500, and the study is underway.
Hartshorn has also been at the forefront of the new housing project between the city of Ogilvie and Blue Waters Development, which has agreed to construct six, four-unit townhouse buildings on the site of the old school.
“That’s a great project,” he said of the build that should kick off this summer.
“We’re working with two senior housing developers and we’re trying to get state funding for those. We don’t have the whole project, but we’ve talked to them. Everybody is excited and everybody says ‘we’d like to do that.’ And that’s the first step — creating that excitement,” he said.
Also on the horizon is the potential for housing — a mix of different types — on the site of the current high school.
“I don’t think it’s going to be real soon because they’ve got to take that building down. Nobody wants to get too excited about it yet, but next year we’re going to see something, for sure,” he said, adding that the district is focused on finishing the new build, moving furniture and other items to the high school this summer, and getting the auction of school property taken care of.
During tours of the community that he offers potential developers, a drive-by of the new high school is always on the schedule.
“It let’s them know that this is a community that is progressive,” he noted. “Now is the time to market (the school) as an asset (to the community).”
Hartshorn tries to do something every day that involves getting more housing into the county, whether it’s phoning new developers, following up with developers he’s already approached, or look for new building sites.
“Housing development, that’s really the key,” he remarked. “Everything follows housing development. You build the houses, the people come. Jobs are created, childcare is taken care of, you get more broadband because of the push. Businesses get created.”
Hartshorn offers praise for his predecessor Heather Steinmetz, who was instrumental in generating new ideas for bringing childcare into the community and creating the Economic Development Authority’s Childcare Capacity Builders. Formed in October of 2019, the group was formed to support existing and newly licensed family childcare businesses in Kanabec County.
“We tried to follow up on most of that,” he said. “But we’re going to go in a new direction.”
He has a meeting set up for next week with several stakeholders to discuss raising funds for new childcare providers in the county.
“We have about 190 slots to fill — 190 children in the county that need childcare,” he said. “Those are 190 kids that are being taken care of by a neighbor or family member, and that’s county-wide. So we’re trying to put some sort of group together that are interested in (creating daycare centers).”
He has approached Pine Technical and Community College since it has an early childhood development program. He has proposed helping new graduates in finding locations for centers and helping craft a business plan for the center. He will even go to the bank with that graduate to assist in applying for a new business loan.
“Staying up on the needs of childcare is big,” he said. For those childcare centers that already exist, he wants to help them if they are interested in expanding.
Needs and wants
As far as business needs in the community, he said he hears about people wanting a Mom and Pop clothing store, something that is hard to come by now, as people are shopping for clothing online.
He also hears from people who want a new grocery store and “fancier restaurants.” However, most chain grocers, such as Aldi, and chain restaurants, such as Applebee’s, won’t come to an area where the population can’t sustain the businesses. Aldi, for example, needs a 10-mile circle with 50,000 people. The Cambridge Aldi doesn’t have 50,000 people in a 10-mile circle, but it comes close, since the city of Isanti and Isanti County is included.
“But that doesn’t mean you can’t try,” he said. “Maybe we won’t get an Applebee’s, but we might get something. It might not be Aldi’s, but it might be something.”
Broadband is a huge issue, Hartshorn said, and he is working with East Central Energy to bring broadband to areas where there are no connections. He is also proud of the marketing he has done to let people know what is available in the county for people who live here4, want to visit here, or want to move here.
“I didn’t even know where Kanabec County was until I saw the ad and applied for the job I have,” he said. “I want people to know about Kanabec County, especially people south of Cambridge.”
Hartshorn said that when he came to the county, his goal was to hit the ground running. He has done that by reaching out to as many businesses and developers as he can. He wants the public to know that more business will mean more housing, which will, in turn, lower taxes for everyone.
“We’re planting seeds, and that’s all we can do right now,” he said. “But that’s how every community started, just by planting seeds.”
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