Gov. Walz visits lakes area, pushes public-private sector collaboration
BAXTER—In a time defined by the information age, Gov. Tim Walz is pushing an economic vision for Minnesota reminiscent of Silicon Valley and other tech-centric powerhouses across the globe.
The problem is how to get there.
Walz stopped by Lindar Corp. with a host of aides, politicians, business leaders and economic development experts Wednesday, April 17, to share that vision. After a tour of the facility, Walz engaged in an intimate roundtable discussion to hash out the needs of local business entities in the lakes area.
"Hope is the most powerful word in the universe, but it is not a plan," Walz said. "I like to be optimistic, but we need a plan."
Throughout the discussion, Walz said it's his goal to avoid overly simplistic, binary arguments that public good is a three-way tug-of-war between private business interests, government oversight and the public.
Instead, he said, all parties are best suited to achieve their ends when they function in collaboration with each other—iterating that Minnesota's best resource is its people, culture and communities, if they can work harmoniously together.
Flanking Walz was Minnesota House Speaker Melissa Hortman and Department of Employment and Economic Development Commissioner Steven Grove, an appointee fresh off a 12-year stint as an executive at tech giant Google.
Grove said the state is looking to identify points of strength in private entrepreneurial markets and fill in the gaps via government intervention to foster business growth throughout Minnesota.
This entails, he said, a package of incentives to help potential entrepreneurs take the leap from a traditional form of employment to the more difficult and likely riskier form of self-employment that drives small business, innovation and venture capitalism. The package includes temporary subsidized health care, research and development grants, business equity grants, reestablishing the Angel Tax Credit program, as well as education initiatives.
The other component is outreach, Grove noted—whether that's for Minnesotans or outsiders who may be interested in establishing businesses in the state—to inspire and galvanize entrepreneurial growth.
"We in Minnesota always rise to the occasion," Walz said. "I do think we're at a critical point where other states are trying to pull away from us, pull away talent, pull away innovation. We want to create the right package that helps start-ups, but also established businesses."
Roundtable discussion tidbits
• Hortman pointed to a factor looming in the economy that's gained traction on both sides of the aisle—namely, the shortage of people involved in the trades and a concerted effort to combat stigmas associated with working in the trades and encouraging young people to pursue them as a viable, long-term form of employment.
• Harkening back to her days as a graduate student at Texas A&M, Syvantis Technologies Inc. co-owner and president Janelle Riley agreed with Walz that innovative and thriving centers of commerce don't just happen, they're the result of concerted efforts by the public and private sectors together. "These things don't happen by accident," Riley said. "Silicon Valley didn't just happen."
• Education—whether via mentorships by experienced tech entrepreneurs, or formalized education for employees funded by the state—could foster more innovative and productive companies, said Rob Weber, a cofounder of venture fund Great North Labs of St. Cloud.
• Lindar Corp. owner Tom Haglin said zero to low interest loans—among other capital incentives—can help companies take leaps and establish themselves in markets to the point where they can expand and hire more employees.
• State Sen. Carrie Ruud said the state needs to continue to find ways that create more affordable housing. As Rosenmeier Forum speakers noted last year, lack of affordable housing is the No. 1 barrier to gainful employment in the Brainerd lakes area for people who are willing and able to work, but unable to for other reasons. "We faced great challenges with workforce housing," Ruud said. "We need a place to stay. Good, affordable housing."
• Riley noted the state needs to find ways to retain talented and well-educated residents for evolving fields—particularly, she said, in rural areas like Brainerd-Baxter, where gifted and hardworking young people are fostered in the public school system, but then leave and don't contribute to local communities.
• Walz said a key to retaining an educative, dynamic workforce is a uniform level of tax support for schools across the state—whether they're in affluent or poor communities—which, in turn, help to build better amenities that can attract workers to Minnesota over other states.
• Brainerd Mayor Ed Menk noted Opportunity Zones—or areas designated to benefit from state and federal grants to encourage development in low-income communities—have been particularly helpful in the wake of the Great Recession. However, he noted, there's a preponderance of these zones in urban centers like the Twin Cities, not rural areas of need.
Later, Walz pointed to child care as a key issue for economic development—particularly in rural communities, where day cares are shuttering at concerning rates like the rest of Minnesota has in recent years, yet aren't rebounding like more metropolitan areas. Walz pointed to allocations in the budget that look to incentivize and establish 30,000 child care slots throughout Greater Minnesota.
"This is an issue that we're all going to have to come to grips with: Why is one of the most important professions—dealing with, protecting and raising our children—one of the hardest ones to stay, start up and making a living in?" Walz said. "This is the issue. If you don't have a place to live or a place for child care, this job isn't it—you're going to go (to jobs) where those are."