The question was: "What helps or hinders growth in Minnesota?" The venue was a luncheon program in Bloomington this week at the "Grow Minnesota'' project sponsored by the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce.
The answer, in large part, turns out to be smart public-sector investment. And those weren't our words, although we say them often enough at Growth & Justice, but the implicit and explicit response from four exemplary real-world business executives.
In introducing the four senior execs, Chamber senior vice-president Bill Blazar said the project's extensive surveys and outreach to businesses across the state revealed "over and over and over again'' that business values "the availability and training of workers in Minnesota.'' For other companies, Blazar said, increased transportation and infrastructure investment "is the biggest issue in the world.''
Blazar cited the obligatory and predictable concerns in a survey of businesses to "hold the line on taxes'' (Minnesota now ranks 23rd among the states in total taxes as a percent of income) and the perennial desire to hold down worker's comp and unemployment comp costs. But the four business leaders who followed him said hardly a word about their tax burden or regulatory concerns. And rather than casting state and local government as a problem, some of them lavished praise on the efforts, especially by local governments and redevelopment agencies, at retaining and expanding their enterprises.
Here are excerpts from all four, who also were quoted on the Star Tribune editorial page this week.
From Don Pyatt, president of Viracon Inc., a thriving Owatonna-based company that has become one of the leading architectural glass manufacturers in the nation (Freedom Tower in NYC and flashy new high-rises in Las Vegas will be clad in their product): Health-care and energy costs are the biggest hindrance to growth, Pyatt said, and his company most needs an increased supply of skilled and trained workers. His only criticism of state government had to do with not doing enough, namely that the state college system (MNSCU) had recently cut back its training program for electricians.
From James A. Sieben, vice-president and general manager of Nova-Tech Engineering LLC, in Willmar, manufacturer of various technology for U.S. and international poultry hatcheries: Local government economic development officials had a vision for helping Nova-Tech locate its operations on the campus of an abandoned state regional treatment center. Sieben proudly showed pictures of how the state facility has been transformed into a thriving corporate campus. One little nit about government: the local historical society has been an obstacle to the company's efforts to renovate some of the buildings on the campus.
From Jeff Strauss, director of operations for Total Card, Inc., a Luverne company that serves credit card customers. The southwestern community leaders and the state's JOBZ program "came together'' to help the company expand in Minnesota and the company has thrived and grown in Minnesota, experiencing a dramatically lower turnover rate than in its South Dakota operation. The state could do something locally to reduce taxes for workers who are living in Iowa and South Dakota and also paying taxes there, Strauss said.
From Brett Weiss, president of WSB & Associates, a Minneapolis infrastructure engineering firm: Of the four, Weiss was perhaps the most emphatic about the damage done by "a lack of investment on our government's side,'' especially in transportation. The failure to invest was causing state construction companies to fail and forcing developers themselves to pay for infrastructure. "It's time to do business in Minnesota,'' Weiss said.
At Growth & Justice, now a dues-paying member of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, we couldn't agree more.