WORTHINGTON — Speakers at the Worthington Regional Economic Development Corp. (WREDC) annual meeting celebrated cooperation between public and private — and the city and Nobles County — to help foster economic development in the area. However, the main focus was on the future, and how the city should move forward.
After outgoing Chairman of the Board Jason Vote thanked public and private partners and board members for their work with the WREDC, Executive Director Abraham Algadi introduced Bill Wetering as the newest chairman.
Wetering thanked city and county leaders who helped “lay the groundwork” for business expansions taking place near U.S. 59 and and elsewhere in the area. Wetering said he moved to Worthington because Bill Hedeen and Larry Hughes offered him a job, but noted that isn’t the case with young professionals today.
“That’s not what young people do,” Wetering said. “They don’t look for a job and take that job, they figure out where they want to live and then they look for a job. They may even rank cities and areas and look in those areas. That is what our city council, WREDC board and county commissioners need to keep in mind. What are we offering that age group to make them say, ‘I want to live in Worthington.’
“Make Worthington the place people want to live — that is my goal,” he added.
Dane Smith, president of the advocacy organization Growth & Justice and a former journalist of 30 years, gave the keynote address. He praised Worthington area leaders for their efforts in economic development and the region’s inclusion of people from diverse backgrounds.
“I’m really impressed by the movers and shakers in this town,” Smith said. “And the thing I’ve been most impressed by is the way this community has made an earnest and sincere effort to meet its diversity, people of color — embrace them and make them part of this community. You’ve gotten some great national and state press for this, and I just can’t encourage you enough to keep up with that.”
As about two-thirds of children in District 518 are of color, Smith said Worthington should look to capitalize on the diversity.
“It’s important we frame this diversity as an opportunity, not as a problem or as a threat,” he said. “We keep saying that this represents an amazing asset — just as our waves of immigration 100 years ago in this state represented an asset — if we do the right things to invest in this unrealized potential.”
Smith was also excited about the public-private partnerships happening in the region, as it falls in line with the kind of development Growth & Justice supports.
“We don’t buy the proposition that if you are pro-business, you are anti-government or vice-versa,” he said. “We believe that profits and business growth are essential to equity in our society — that there’s no better social program than a good job and good wages.”
Smith discussed Growth & Justice’s recently launched Minnesota Rural Equity Project, a partnership with the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities, the Minnesota Asset Building Coalition and the Greater Minnesota Partnership to strengthen the economy and reduce inequality in areas of Greater Minnesota. The project is funded in part by a grant from the Blandin Foundation.
The project aims to improve early childhood care, provide high-speed internet to unserved communities, close racial or ethnic disparities and providing new career pathways to create a skilled workforce. The project focuses on better serving the needs of Greater Minnesota, especially southwest Minnesota.
In talking about the state’s rural and urban divide, Smith invoked Aesop’s “The City Mouse and the Country Mouse,” urging rural and urban Minnesotans try to respect and understand one another so they can better work together.
“As legislators, policymakers and all of us work together, we need more respect for each other,” he said. “The urban condescension has to go, and the rural resentment and anger also has to go.”
Moving forward, the WREDC will look to build upon its progress with the Nobles Home Initiative (NHI) tax abatement program. Since its start in 2014, the NHI has accepted 52 applications, resulting in the construction of 43 new single-family housing units. Also on the way, with help from the program, is the construction of 72 market rate rental units by North Development Group (NDG) on the Grand Avenue extension.
The goal is to build 500 new housing units by 2020 to meet the city’s heavy demands, as outlined in the 2013 City of Worthington Housing Study.