by Dan Rafter
Cathy Mehelich is never surprised when a business decides to move to St. Cloud, Minn., or when a developer begins turning dirt for a new distribution center or retail building. This city, a little more than an hour’s drive from Minneapolis, offers plenty of advantages for those who want to do business here.
Mehelich, economic development director for the city, points to its central location in Minnesota and its proximity to other major markets across the Midwest. She points, too, to St. Cloud’s location right on Interstate-94.
Then there is the workforce here, a pool of talent that Mehelich calls St. Cloud’s strongest selling point. The city is home to St. Cloud State University and St. Cloud Technical & Community College, among others. Mehelich says that the city boasts more than 30,000 college students attending six different colleges and universities.
“Many employers are looking for the right kind of labor to help grow their companies. Having that labor force right here is a key draw for us,” Mehelich said. “The collaboration between business and education here is a key benefit for companies. That is a key draw especially for industrial users. These users are looking for that skilled workforce.”
And the good news? St. Cloud economic development and government officials are committed to attracting even more new businesses and developments to their community. It’s all part of a plan set in motion a little less than four years ago.
Changing the strategy
About four years ago, the leaders of the city of St. Cloud made a key decision: They needed to change the way the city pursued new business and development opportunities.
To do this, the city created the St. Cloud Economic Development Authority, an entity charged with promoting the city’s benefits and bringing new business development to its borders.
So far, the results have been impressive.
During the last three years, Canadian bus manufacturer New Flyer and German farm-implementation manufacturer Geringhoff have both chosen to open new industrial facilities in the city.
Geringhoff, a 150-year-old company, in 2012 selected St. Cloud as the home for its first North American manufacturing facility. Officials with the Economic Development Authority helped the company find a 100,000-square-foot manufacturing facility that had recently been vacated.
New Flyer opened a medium-duty bus-line production facility here in 2013. The company brought 138 new jobs to the community.
Another big success came in May of this year when SkyWest, an airline that partners with United Airlines, reinstated direct service from Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport to St. Cloud Regional Airport. SkyWest now offers twice-daily flights, seven days a week, between the two airports, something that Mehelich says makes St. Cloud an even more attractive location for businesses.
“Restoring commercial air service is important,” Mehelich said. “We had lost it five or six years earlier. The business community strongly supported our efforts to attract commercial air service back to St. Cloud. Succeeding in that will be important for future economic development and growth here.”
A city on the move
St. Cloud’s downtown has also benefited from the efforts of the Economic Development Authority, seeing an increase of 70 percent in new retail and dining establishments in the last three years.
Others have noticed. Such diverse sources as Forbes, Livability.com and the Milken Institute have all ranked St. Cloud as a top location in which to live and do business.
St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis, in his 2014 state of the city address, said that the city is no longer simply known as the “Granite City” for its important role in the granite industry. Instead, business leaders are recognizing St. Cloud for its skilled labor force and diversifying economic base, he said.
“We offer one of the most highly skilled and educated workforces in the state and a robust supplier network,” Kleis said, “giving businesses the resources they need to succeed.”
Mehelich says that her office is now fielding a steady stream of calls from companies interested in setting up shop in St. Cloud. These companies are looking for the right location for their projects in the city, and officials with the economic development corporation are happy to help them find their ideal spots.
Economic development officials will also help companies tap into financing and incentive opportunities.
“We’ll answer any questions they have about workforce availability,” Mehelich said. “We’ll connect them with our local colleges or universities to talk about job-skills training programs. We’ll help them connect with suppliers that might be important to them in this location. It certainly cuts down on their transportation costs and inventory costs if they can get the supplies they need in the local area.”
The future looks promising for St. Cloud. The city remains one of the fastest-growing metropolitan statistical areas in Minnesota.
“In the past few years, St. Cloud’s reputation for business opportunity has grown significantly,” Kleis said,” due in no small part to regional, national and international companies choosing the city for their operations over competing locations across the state and the country.”