Economic development director sees county through fresh eyesA new economic development director is now leading the charge in Carlton County — one whose name and face are familiar throughout the state. Connie Christenson took over the position on Aug. 27. Christenson answers the Pine Journal questions about her background and her thoughts on economic development in Carlton County.
By: Wendy Johnson, Pine Journal
A new economic development director is now leading the charge in Carlton County — one whose name and face are familiar throughout the state.
Connie Christenson took over the position on Aug. 27, only the second to hold that post with the county. She replaces Pat Oman, who left on May 20 after eight years to become city administrator for the city of Moose Lake.
Christenson brings with her an impressive background in economic development and related fields, and she has some new “takes” on local issues as the county moves on into the future.
Here, in a series of questions posed by the Pine Journal, Christenson talks about her training and experience and some of the issues she finds to be most critical in Carlton County.
Q – Where did you get your start and what school/career/life experiences led you in the direction of working in economic development?
A – My first job in the field of economic development was with the original Greater Minnesota Corporation (GMC) created by former Governor Rudy Perpich. I believe Governor Perpich was truly a visionary leader in many areas. The original source of state funding for economic development was to be from the newly created state lottery proceeds. These funds would have provided the state access to hundreds of millions of dollars for economic development activity around the state. The focus of the GMC was on inventors and entrepreneurs with additional state resources dedicated to marketing, research and development and technology transfer. I was the Northeast Regional office coordinator of this joint undertaking between the state and the University of Minnesota-Duluth Center for Economic Development.
Unfortunately, the GMC was dissolved due to a lawsuit against the state and with that the field of economic development permanently lost access to the lottery funds. Since then all lottery proceeds have been allocated to the general fund and to natural resource preservation.
The successor corporation to GMC was Minnesota Technology (now known as Enterprise Minnesota). The work was refocused on assisting the manufacturing sector of small to medium-sized firms with less than 50 employees. I had the great honor of working with some pretty amazing people — innovative, well-educated, ground breakers in the field of economic development. I also had the opportunity to visit most of the manufacturing facilities in the seven-county Arrowhead Region as well as participate in cutting edge business training and process improvement.
I was inspired to finish my undergraduate degree in business administration with a major in human resource management and then obtained my master’s with a finance focus. I have discovered I love learning and take every opportunity to gain new knowledge.
Q – What types of positions have you held and where?
My career has taken many different paths. Interestingly, I started as a home economics major but quickly switched to business after my first semester at the University of Minnesota. My first corporate job was with the Pillsbury Company in their personnel department in the mid-1970s (it was not called human resources back then). Pillsbury was a very progressive company on family-friendly work life initiatives — job sharing, onsite daycare, flex time, and the first Equal Employment Office in the Twin Cities. I learned a lot about the private sector and their approach to development that has helped me in my current field.
Marriage and family brought me back to the Iron Range just when the economy was taking its first downward spiral. As an interesting aside, professional women were not in abundance in the Northeast. I found a similar position to my Pillsbury job with one of the local mining companies but was denied the opportunity to even apply because I was a woman. I could, however, sign on as a “Kelly Girl” temporary worker as an assistant to a male supervisor. We really have come a long way.
I held various part-time jobs while raising my children in both the retail sector and legal community for private law firms as well as the public defender’s office. I went on to management of a law firm in Duluth where I picked up invaluable paralegal expertise in real estate, corporate, and family law. At one point I was contemplating obtaining a law degree but with four small children this was just not feasible.
I went from the legal field to the newly established field of economic development. The combination of my legal experience with business acumen was a great fit for my work in this sector. I was the economic development facilitator and program manager of the Community Development Block Grant Program for St. Louis County (Small Cities Program) for 14 years. My most recent work was with the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development first as the Northeast Regional Administrator under the Workforce Development Division and then a director in the Office of Innovation and Strategic Alliance in the Commissioner’s Office.
Q – What are some of the career accomplishments you have found the most satisfying?
A – Providing economic development technical assistance to communities and non-profits. Rather than doing the work for them, I help them understand “how to do it,” which provides a foundation for additional opportunities in the future. Successfully obtaining federal grant funds for Northeast Minnesota is another area where I take great pride.
Q – When DEED Commissioner Mark Phillips created your most recent position, he stated the purpose was to address the need for greater communication and cooperation among education, private industry, workforce and economic development sectors. How and why did that breakdown occur and what were some of the solutions and benefits you were able to identify?
A – As with any established industry sector, the focus of time and effort is on what affects their own world without considering how key interrelationships are of greater benefit. For example, private industry would often identify a need for a particular skill set or specialized training for their workforce needs. The education industry is not necessarily geared to rapid turnaround in curriculum development which delays the pipeline of this needed trained workforce. Workforce development programs are often federally funded with specific regulations and guidelines often placing financing and efforts on the low-end of the labor pool when our industry partners are demanding much higher education and skill sets in order to be globally competitive. Economic development needs to cross all three silos of education, industry and workforce development.
Resource development through federal grant opportunities was another major focus of the Office of Innovation. Teams of cross-sector grant writers would collaborate on initiatives that would garner funds for the state. I was on the team that was awarded one of only 20 national Jobs and Innovation Accelerator Challenge Grants. The focus of the grant was the development of the Minnesota Mining Cluster (both ferrous and non-ferrous). Over $650,000 was granted for tuition and scholarship support for individuals wishing to obtain a mining engineering degree or technical certification in support of both ferrous and non-ferrous (iron ore and precious metal) industries. Interested individuals should make contact with the Northeast Minnesota Office of Jobs and Training in Virginia. The first two years of education is provided through either the Grand Rapids or Hibbing community colleges and then the last two years in the Project Based Learning Program in the Iron Range Engineering Division of Mesabi Range Technical and Community College.
Q – How can various parts of the state benefit from working collaboratively on economic development?
A – Economic development professionals are the first to proclaim the benefits of partnership and collaboration. Economic impact is measured at many levels — community, county, region and state. The axiom of “a rising tide lifts all boats” is very true. The benefits of economic growth in one community truly does benefit surrounding communities through increased tax base, housing development/redevelopment and benefitting school districts. Economic development professionals in both the public and private sector come together at various times through forums and conferences sponsored by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED), the International Economic Development Council (IEDC), Minnesota Association of Professional County Economic Developers (MAPCED) and the Economic Development Association of Minnesota. All venues offer education and training with presentations on best practices in the industry, networking with peers that allows mentoring on similar projects, and the opportunity to voice public policy needs as it relates to economic development issues of concern.
Q – What was it about Carlton County that attracted your attention to the economic development director position?
A – My three years at the state level provided me with a different perspective on economic development policy and state investment with the unique issues faced by the state as a whole. However, my passion remained at the community level and therefore I was drawn to the Carlton County opening. Also, not having a three- hour Monday morning commute was a plus!
Q – What challenges do you think Carlton County faces in the area of economic development? In your limited time here so far, what’s working and what’s not?
A – Carlton County’s challenges are not much different than other Minnesota counties. We have tremendous assets in natural resources and human capital. A recent meeting with a national site selector guild highlighted the many wonderful things the state and our region have to offer, but their greatest concern was our lack of visibility on the national or global market. “Minnesota Nice” is our pride and our curse. I think there are many things that are working quite well in Carlton County. Support of the County Board is a crucial component of economic development and I have found all five commissioners to be very much in tune with their districts’ and constituents’ needs. Outmigration of youth is always a rural concern and providing opportunities to obtain employment to support a family should be a top priority.
Q – What do you believe to be Carlton County’s greatest asset in promoting economic development?
A – The transportation infrastructure – Interstate 35 running north and south and County Highway 210 running east and west. Development generally occurs along a highway system – especially a four-lane thoroughfare. The west central area of the state did not begin to be developed until Interstate 94 was constructed. Now, look at the economic activity running from the metro through St. Cloud and further north. The one county in Minnesota (Meeker) that does not have any significant development can be traced to the fact they have no four-lane highways running through it. We also have the benefit of being served by four rail systems — something that is not common elsewhere in the United States.
Q – Various opinions exist about the idea of Carlton County being the business of economic development by promoting its own light industrial/residential park on land it owns south of Highway 210. What is your sense of the county’s role in this regard?
A – Decisions were made on the development of the light industrial/residential park with the information that was available at the time. I will not second guess the process or the value of the undertaking. However, my primary focus will be to support the existing business parks that are not fully occupied at this time.
Q – Carlton County still faces many challenges related to long-term recovery following the June 2012 flooding. Do you believe economic development can play a role in expediting this recovery?
A – I believe the efforts of the state through the award of Minnesota Investment Funds (MIF) and other flood-related assistance such as the employment of Drew Digby, coordinator, and Tom Paull, technical assistance provider, will have lasting benefits for county residents. MIF loans have provided business owners with financial assistance to begin rehabilitation of their facilities to pre-flood conditions as well as to support lost cash flow and inventory immediately after the flood. County efforts to replace damaged infrastructure are a crucial component to allowing economic development to flourish. A business will not locate where the drinking water is tainted nor will families stay in a region that does not support safe, adequate housing stock.
Q – Carlton County Economic Development has built up a significant pool of loan money to help support business growth and expansion in the county. Is this something that you intend to expand upon in the future?
A – The ability to leverage outside resources to the benefit of Carlton County is an economic development strategy that I will continue to promote. However, I also recognize that financial incentives are not always the answer to economic development growth opportunities. Carlton County has much to offer and foremost is our educated, skilled workforce. Demonstration of low turnover costs with high productivity that equates to a healthier bottom line is something that companies love. Relationship building is required first before you can bring that message forward. I pride myself in my ability to establish trust and honor confidentiality — something that is very difficult to maintain while working in the public sector.
Q – What role do you think marketing plays in expanding economic development within the county?
A – Strategic marketing is best accomplished through collaboration and partnership with other stakeholders. As a separate budget item just for the county is not financially feasible. The level of sophistication and use of technology by companies and their hired consultants brings the economic development game to a different level. I believe that Carlton County’s membership in the statewide marketing initiative “Positively Minnesota” is the best use of local funds. We also have the benefit of a private regional partner in APEX (Arrowhead Partnership for Economic Expansion) that has the ability to invest funds and undertake recruitment efforts that the county would not be able to afford.