MARSHALL - Ninety public projects that didn't make it into the Legislature's bonding bill this year competed against each other the summer for part of a $47.5 million pool of money set aside by state lawmakers.
The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development was put in charge of distributing the money that will go toward economic development projects statewide. In all, there were $288 million worth of funding requests.
Did the system work?
In the end, there were big winners, but far more losers, and on Friday, Gov. Mark Dayton, who was in Marshall for this weekend's Governor's Pheasant Opener, took a share of the responsibility for signing off on a process that everyone involved knew would leave cities with worthwhile projects mathematically out of the running.
"I think it was a huge mistake on my part to agree to it," Dayton told the Independent on Friday. "It was a cop-out by the Legislature, because I had proposed a $786 million bonding bill, which fit within the budget, and they only wanted to do $495 million, so this was sort of a catch-all. I would not do anything like that again."
The city of Marshall had two requests for DEED money - one for the proposed $12.9 million regional sports amateur complex, the other for expansion at the MERIT Training Center. Neither even made the final list of recommendations, putting them in far from exclusive company. Fewer than a dozen projects ended up receiving funding.
"I thought, 'Well, here's a chance to do $47.5 million worth of projects we wouldn't be able to do the way it is now,' but we had $288 million worth of project requests with just $47.5 million to go around; there's just no way "
DEED reviewed applications based on five criteria: project readiness, job creation, investment and leverage, regional impact, and public benefit. Projects were organized into three regions to achieve geographic balance, including: metro, north and south. Dayton had final say on who got what.
"DEED has a professional staff and had their ranking system, and you can quarrel with how they ranked one versus another, but it was an objective process, a carefully-run process," Dayton said. "So I mostly stuck with what they presented to me."
Paul Erickson, chairman of the Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission, said the odds for a majority of projects looking for money were "extremely low" to begin with because of the large number of requests.
"I think there were a lot of expectations built up for certain projects, especially with St. Paul, so probably two-thirds of the money was pre-committed by what occurred at the Legislature," said Erickson. "I'm not saying they didn't run a dignified process, but I think the projects arrived on the governor's desk with some built-up expectations."
Dayton said there is hope for the projects left on the outside looking in - projects like the ones in Marshall that have went to the Legislature multiple times for financial assistance.
"I'm going to give first consideration to the projects not able to be funded through the DEED fund in next year's bonding bill," said Dayton. "When you look at it, there's a lot of very, very good projects in there. But if I would've not funded those that were recommended and funded somebody else's, it just shifts the disappointment. It was a no-win situation."
Dayton also said it's the Legislature's responsibility to put together bonding bills, and that it was frustrating for him not to be able to persuade the Legislature to do the job.
"The Legislature is responsible for deciding the level of funding; if they're not willing to do what the budget would permit in terms of bonding, then they're the ones who have to face their constituents. It's their job. I don't mind taking the blame for things that I'm responsible for, but I don't want to take somebody else's. Many of these projects should've been funded and should've been funded through the bonding process."
Voters in Marshall will vote on a local sales tax option in November, and revenue raised by those taxes will help pay for both projects. Erickson said if history is any indication, the sales tax vote has a good chance of going through.
"Everything we've heard is very positive," he said. "This project is consistent with the role Marshall plays in the region. The select number of communities like Rochester and Blaine that have invested in amateur sports as an economic development tool have been highly successful. People invest in their children and family activities, even in tougher times."