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Key to growth: Thief River Falls company, area communities say they are ready for major expansion

Employees from the Grand Forks, N.D., area arrive by bus at the DigiKey plant in Thief River Falls, Minn., on Friday, Dec. 1, 2017. Employees who commute by bus work four 10-hour shifts in the warehouse. Eric Hylden / Forum News Service1 / 6
One portion of the multiple layers that makes up Digi-Key Electronics' headquarters in Thief River Falls, Minn. The company has 3,500 employees, and 3,200 work at the headquarters. April Baumgarten / Forum News Service2 / 6
Ashley Schulz works on picking orders at the DigiKey plant in Thief River Falls, Minn., on Friday, Dec. 1, 2017. Eric Hylden / Forum News Service3 / 6
Michelle Frericks checks through parts before packaging them Monday, Nov. 6, 2017, at Digi-Key Electronics in Thief River Falls, Minn. She has worked for the company for five years. April Baumgarten / Forum News Service4 / 6
Ben Sundberg is one of several DigiKey employees who work with supplies at the Thief River Falls, Minn., plant. Eric Hylden / Forum News Service5 / 6
DigiKey custodial employee Mark Langevin walks with a group of trainees through the Thief River Falls, Minn., factory Friday, Dec. 1, 2017. Eric Hylden / Forum News Service6 / 6

THIEF RIVER FALLS, Minn. — It's hard to imagine what a 1 million-square-foot facility looks like.

Imagine if the Metrodome were built in Thief River Falls instead of Minneapolis. The 900,000-square-foot stadium that was once home to the Twins and Vikings is about 100,000 square feet smaller than Digi-Key Electronics' expansion in Thief River Falls.

At least that's how staff of the electronics distributor describe the project. The new building will have four floors totaling 2.2 million square feet of usable space. That would bring the total usable space with the current building at 701 Brooks Ave. to 2.9 million square feet.

"It's going to triple the footprint of our campus," said Rick Trontvet, vice president of administration at Digi-Key.

After receiving millions of dollars in incentives from the state and local governments, Digi-Key committed this summer to building the $300 million project in Thief River Falls. The worldwide exporter broke ground on the project in September, though the expansion won't begin in earnest until April.

The investment should create 1,000 jobs over the next decade in Thief River Falls, expanding the company's current workforce of 3,500.

Digi-Key staff and advocates, including local leaders and state legislators, spent months convincing the Legislature to back the expansion. With construction on the horizon, Digi-Key faces its next set of challenges: hiring in a tight market and finding a place for those workers to live.

Overcoming those obstacles starts by having countless meetings with officials from surrounding cities and formulating a strategy that includes collaboration from groups across the region, Trontvet said.

"This can't happen by ourselves," he said. "We need to work with our governments and communities to make this happen."

100 per year

Digi-Key tends to attract people from all walks of life, including these employees: Tammy Sparby, who opened up a day care center in Thief River Falls, former dental assistant Renae Jensen, Lynn Kartes, who worked for Frito-Lay in Roseau, Minn., and Rob Giffen, who traveled overseas doing volunteer work.

"Everybody can look at what they did prior to Digi-Key and there is going to be an opening somewhere," Jensen said.

Hiring in response to the expansion already has begun in anticipation for the project, but it's nothing new, Trontvet said. Digi-Key has added 1,000 positions in the last decade, averaging 100 each year. It's a strategy it will use to hire enough people to fill the new building.

"It's not going to happen all in one bunch," he said. "We feel that rate of growth will continue."

About 3,200 of the 3,500 employees who work with Digi-Key are based in the Thief River Falls facility. About 1,800 live in Thief River Falls, which has a population of about 8,800. Another 1,400 commute more than an hour from other communities to Thief River Falls. Buses come in daily from East Grand Forks, Crookston and Bagley, bringing with them Digi-Key employees.

The busing program is part of a larger strategy to attract workers to the company.

"They get to work a four-day workweek ... and they get a ride to work," he said. "It's been very popular."

Sparby, an assigned accounts representative, said it will be exciting to watch the progress of the building day by day. The current building is getting tight for use, and the fact that Digi-Key is expanding to give employees more space and amenities shows it cares about its employees.

It's also proof of the company's commitment to the community, said Giffen, who works in human resources.

"It's just fun to watch a local company grow like that," Kartes said.

Trontvet said the key to attracting workers is to show Digi-Key is a company that treats employees well instead of making them feel like they are a number.

"We need to continue to be a good employer to work for," he said. "We realize that to grow we need to not only do the traditional recruitment that we do ... but we also have to have a good reputation."

'Balancing act'

Digi-Key looks to other communities for potential workers, as well as a source for housing.

"We're not just hiring people from Thief River Falls. It's a regional hiring situation for us," Trontvet said. "It's a company that really relies on the region."

Thief River Falls officials meet with Digi-Key often and sometimes receive updates daily on strategies to attract residents, court housing developers and update infrastructure to handle the expected increase in population, Thief River Falls Mayor Brian Holmer said. There are a lot of moving parts and matters to address, from electrical to plumbing to housing, he said. It also includes looking into amenities it has and should offer, such as restaurants, shopping and activities, he added.

City planners have platted out multiple locations across the city that could be developed into housing, said Mark Borseth, community services director with Thief River Falls. It added 169 housing units between 2014 and 2016 and has 378 in the development stage.

"The city has been pretty proactive ... to plan for growth and expansion," Borseth said.

Figuring out how many and which type of housing units can be tricky, Holmer said. It's likely the housing market will fluctuate from low to high supply, which is typical during periods of growth, he said.

Trontvet said the company is in contact with various cities in northwest Minnesota that ask how they can build a housing market to attract workers for Digi-Key. Officials from various cities also have met with each other to plan for the growth, Holmer said. That includes research into housing studies, impacts and comprehensive planning.

"It is a regional issue," he said. "It's going to be a balancing act for every community."

Holmer is confident Thief River Falls and other communities can handle the growth from Digi-Key's expansion.

"We have a challenge ahead of us," he said. "We're up for the challenge."

April Baumgarten

April Baumgarten joined the Grand Forks Herald May 19, 2015, and covers business and political stories. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, where her family continues to raise registered Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at Jamestown (N.D.) College, now known as University of Jamestown. During her time at the college, she worked as a reporter and editor-in-chief for the university's newspaper, The Collegian. Baumgarten previously worked for The Dickinson Press as the Dickinson city government and energy reporter in 2011 before becoming the editor of the Hazen Star and Center Republican. She then returned to The Press as a news editor, where she helped lead an award-winning newsroom in recording the historical oil boom.

Have a story idea? Contact Baumgarten at 701-780-1248.

(701) 780-1248
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