“Growth is never by mere chance; it is the result of forces working together.” – James Cash Penney

This apt quote by the founder of the department store chain JCPenney can be applied to economic development. Sustainable growth requires investment and engagement from a broad range of stakeholders. But gathering disparate parties to work in concert with one another toward a given goal requires leadership.

A couple of years ago, Bruce Sayler, principal of community and economic development at Connexus Energy, noticed while attending GREATER MSP meetings that the vast majority of big development projects in the region were taking place within the immediate metro area. Only two projects went to Anoka County, which indicated to Sayler that there wasn’t a level playing field.

“We started asking ‘Why?’” he said. “Why aren’t we getting projects in our region?”

It became apparent Anoka County was lacking a precedent for cities and municipalities to work together on economic development issues. Sayler notes that Connexus Energy was in the perfect position to help.

“We realized having a neutral party to help manage the initiative could make a big difference,” Sayler said. “So we stepped up to take the project lead.”

Connexus Energy is Minnesota’s largest electric cooperative. It serves more than 130,000 members in portions of seven counties, including Anoka County. Concern for community and working toward sustainable development are part of Connexus’ cooperative mandate.

Connexus and others put together a steering team that included key players from throughout Anoka County. The group hired an outside consultant to collect input from stakeholders and identify the region’s strengths and weaknesses in relation to business recruitment and expansion.

The multi-month process culminated in a report, released in December that includes recommendations for moving forward.

“We’ve got work to do,” Sayler said.

Two key objectives identified during the process were improving public perception of the county and ensuring sites and buildings are ready for development. Now that the county and cities have agreed to come together to collaborate, the group is working on clearly defining partner roles and responsibilities.

“One of biggest accomplishments so far was creating a single point of contact at Anoka County for economic development. Before this, we didn’t have that,” Sayler said. “As a result of this process, they agreed to hire a dedicated economic development professional. That shows Anoka County is committed to the region.”

The report identified target industries including manufacturing, distribution and data centers. The region has assets to draw from in terms of technical education and available workforce. Currently, twice as many Anoka County residents commute to the metro area for employment than stay within the county for work. The county has an opportunity to reverse this significant talent drain through business attraction and expansion.

Helping bring jobs to Anoka County is good for everyone, including the co-op.

“It’s really about job and load growth,” Sayler explained. “The more jobs you bring in, the more residential housing units are built. The more workers you have, the more businesses expand.”

Some of the cities involved in this initiative aren’t in Connexus’ territory, but Sayler said the co-op recognizes the overall goal was good for the region and important for its forward momentum.

“This is a very rewarding project. With this collaborative effort, over time we all win,” he said.