While no city's picture is perfect, especially during a recession, the city of Marshall has, comparatively speaking, been able to weather the financial storm.
Marshall Mayor Bob Byrnes knows the grass is greener in Marshall and the southwest Minnesota region than in many other areas across the country. He attributes that to a diversified local economy - from agriculture and banking, to education and the manufacturing sector. What Byrnes calls a "good mix" of economy has formed something of a force field around the region that has, in many ways, protected it from the recession.
And while he says cynicism concerning the nation's economic outlook has proven to be contagious, those negative feelings, the daily worries that have seeped into every corner of the nation, never fully took hold in southwest Minnesota.
"People's attitudes are sometimes influenced by things going on elsewhere and maybe aren't specific to this area," Byrnes said earlier this week in an interview with the Independent. "Certainly in the state and national media there's a lot of negative news that maybe isn't accurate for the Marshall area. I think it's important to focus on what is going on in the community and really acknowledge the positive things that are going on in the area."
Byrnes uses the area's unemployment rate as an example, as southwest Minnesota has one of the lowest in the state. He also credits a strong core of city leaders and strong volunteer base. And, he said, there's the pull factor - a measurement of the amount of money coming into and leaving the community. A 1 pull factor is essentially a break-even point; Marshall, he said, is at 1.97.
"You compare that with other communities of our size throughout the state - there are only two communities in the state with a higher pull factor," Byrnes said. "One of those is Bemidji, and the other is Mendota Heights in the suburban area. Ours is higher than Willmar, for example, higher than Worthington. In Marshall, we're not just called a regional center, but we're really a center for retail activity in southwest Minnesota.
What does adding major businesses like Menard's mean to the city of Marshall?
That is just one more addition to the regional retail base. The large investment that they're making - developing 70 acres of property, a multi-million dollar building under construction - will add to the tax base; that's a good thing. One hundred-plus employees, that's a very good thing. Past history is an indication as to what will happen. It will increase the retail draw into the community. And that impacts, not only the Menard's business, but also other retailers in the community, too. We have a history of demonstrating that. In 1991 when Wal-Mart came here, that increased the total retail activity in the community, not just retail activity in that store. When Wal-Mart built the new store the same thing happened. I think it's a positive for the community.
Is the city of Marshall any closer to realizing its goal of becoming a regional sports center now than it was five years ago?
No. 1, we were designated by the Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission as the location in southwest Minnesota; that designation is very important. The local board that is working on this has done a lot of research to validate what would be appropriate to be a regional sports plan and what would have the highest return of investment for the community and the state. They've really done a lot of great work in focusing on what the true target would be on attracting people to the community from outside the region and other states for amateur sports opportunities.
That being said, there's a long ways to go yet. There's a solid plan put together. There really does need to be a funding source for that. Could it be funded entirely through a local sales tax? Probably. It'd be an appropriate candidate for state bonding assistance in two years. There's certainly a track record for state bonding investments in other regions in the state. The question is, why is it not appropriate for a state bonding investment in southwest Minnesota when it has happened in northwest Minnesota, in central Minnesota, in the metro area - why should southwest Minnesota be treated any differently?
There's a lot of education that needs to be done to tell the story about what are the possibilities and what would the impact be.
What does the road construction on Minnesota Highway 23 mean to Marshall and how will it pay off in the future?
Highway 23 is designated as a regional corridor. That's very important for the community. Highway 23 is really designated as our access point to the interstate highway system. We have lots of freight that goes in and out of Marshall every day, whether it's agricultural commodities, manufactured food, that really needs a good highway system. This improvement is wonderful to see. The reconstruction of it - this will serve the community for the next 40 years. They're doing a good job, they're moving along. Many projects like this could've been stretched more than one year. They're getting it done all in one construction season. We had a rocky couple weeks when the construction first started, but MnDOT and construction management has really worked hard to make things flow easy. Until the project is done it won't be perfect, but they've really worked hard to make things flow through the intersections. The other important part of that is that Highway 23 is an interregional corridor and the community has grown over top of that, so we have safety concerns.
The transportation committee and the Chamber of Commerce has worked hard on identifying those safety concerns. And one of those concerns is how do pedestrians safely cross, and that's one of the reasons why the pedestrian underpass is part of the project.
Pedestrians, bicyclists can cross without having to go across four lanes of traffic going 60 miles per hour. As we do planning for how people move back and forth, we need to make sure that people can do that safely.
Downtown construction - what has it meant for the business climate in that area?
The downtown retail community made it through the downtown construction amazingly well. That was not by accident. There was a lot of involvement from the downtown community - how are the businesses going to be promoted, how can access happen through the alley entrances as opposed to the front door. There was really a lot of good cooperation throughout downtown. We have a few vacancies downtown, empty stores, but compared to a lot of communities we have relatively few empty storefronts. We see new investment, the most recent of which is the new Hunan Lion restaurant, which is very impressive. Adjacent to the downtown area, the development of Memorial Park will also be a good addition to downtown.
How is the city of Marshall prepared to deal with a reduction in Local Government Aid?
Local Government Aid has been our most unstable form of funding. But our fiscal management in the city has been good. Fiscally, we've been sound. Despite the reduction in Local Government Aid we have kept our tax rate the same. Any increase in the local reliance on property tax in light of reductions in Local Government Aid has really mirrored the growth in tax capacity in the community. What people will pay on their individual properties, assuming that their valuations stay the same, should not increase. That works as long as we can maintain a moderate level of growth in the community.
We're able to continue to provide services that we need to provide in terms of public safety and structure and community amenities. We're able to do that by maintaining that modest but steady level of growth in the community.
The risk would be if you were going in the other direction - instead of growing, your tax base starts to shrink. I don't want to say that local government aid is not important, it is, it's a substantial source of revenue that the community receives. Are we in a position to be able to make it without? Yes, we'll have to. You deal with the cards that are dealt you. As a mayor or as a city, we could spend a lot of time complaining about Local Government Aid, but the reality is, it is what it is and we'll deal with it. And we're able to do that because we have a history of maintaining a strong budget reserve.
What major projects are on the horizon in Marshall?
There are some major projects under way. There's Menard's, Turkey Valley is completing an investment in their plant that will result in an increase in employment. Titan Machine is working on a new development, buying property in the city and building a new store. That's huge. The development of the next phase of our industrial park - the planning for that is under way. The next big thing will probably occur in the new industrial area.
The library process has had its ups and downs. With the city on the brink of authorizing construction, what will a new library mean to the city/region?
It's been a long journey that the library board's been on and I commend the board for weathering all the ups and downs it has gone through to get the library project to the point of the city council authorizing the construction, which is proposed next Tuesday. Barring any unforeseen glitches that should happen. With a new library comes an excitement that any new facility brings - whether it's a new YMCA or a new educational facility.
There'll be a renewed interest in all of the services that will be available at the library. And the location will also lend itself to a good collaboration with the school system, Tiger Lake, the expansion of Tiger lake and removal of the propane tanks that are adjacent where Tiger Lake is being constructed; there will be a trail really, almost be a green-way type connection from downtown through Memorial Park, to the YMCA, to the new library, to the Middle School - lots of opportunities for collaboration.
Where do you see Marshall in the next decade?
I see Marshall continuing to be an important part of southwest Minnesota, to be the employment center of southwest Minnesota, the health care center of southwest Minnesota, the education center of southwest Minnesota and the retail center of southwest Minnesota. If we're doing our job right as community leaders, in 10 years Marshall will continue to be a community that people would choose to live in.
People can choose to live in a lot of different communities; we need to be the community that people will choose to live in because it's a good place to raise a family, it's safe, it has all the amenities and it has the jobs.