By Jennifer Kotila
COKATO, MN Members of Cokato City Council, Cokato Development Corporation, Cokato Chamber of Commerce, and the Cokato Economic Development Authority (EDA), along with real estate professionals, met Tuesday to discuss Cokato’s economy and what can be done to attract new business to the area.
The meeting started with a brief presentation by Dan Birkholz, web department manager at the Herald Journal, about a video being produced regarding Cokato and Dassel being the best place in Minnesota to raise a family.
The video can be used to help market the community to surrounding areas by placing it on various websites, such as both of the cities’ websites, the EDA’s website, Youtube, and Facebook.
After Birkholz presentated, Dean Perry, chair of Cokato’s EDA, established the purpose of the meeting, to discuss the vacant buildings in the community and what to do to fill them.
Currently, there are 15 vacant commercial properties listed in Cokato, said Joanne Foust of the Municipal Development Group.
She brought maps to the meeting for the business leaders in attendance to mark any other commercial properties they knew were available in Cokato.
Perry asked Wayne Elam, the city’s realtor at Commercial Realty Solutions, if it was typical for towns such as Cokato to have the number of vacant commercial properties it does.
“Most communities are pretty similar to Cokato. What’s really tough is when you have a large employer or building go dark,” Elam said.
Perry then asked if other communities were doing something similar to Cokato, such as holding joint meetings of business leaders, economic development leaders, and city leaders.
“It depends on the community,” Elam said. “Some are, while others are letting the market weather itself out. Anything we can do as a community to brainstorm is good.”
Foust then presented a variety of financial assistance programs available for economic development in the community.
There are several types of assistance available from federal, state, regional, and local sources, Foust said. The aid can come in the form of grants, loan programs, and tax incentives.
Foust presented and explained 17 different programs for financial aid to help the community and small businesses.
She also noted there were several other programs available to help fund community projects such as transportation, parks and trails, community facilities, education, and historic preservation.
When Foust was done speaking, Perry opened the meeting up for discussion of the roles of each stakeholder in the prosperity of Cokato.
Ken Bakke, city council member, noted there was a vision quest done several years ago and asked if anything has ever been done with that report or if it was being used.
“Yes, it is part of the city’s comprehensive plan,” City Administrator Don Levens said, noting it was available for anyone who wanted to see it.
“We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. If a plan was already done, we can use that,” Bakke said. “I just don’t know if we’ll get people to come to our community in the economy we are in now.”
“Yes, it is a tough time,” Perry said, “but now is the time to plan, and have plans in place for businesses to move in when the economy does get better.”
Some commercial property sites can be designated as shovel-ready sites, meaning all the city infrastructure necessary to build is in place, but it costs a few thousand dollars for an inspector to come and designate the site, Foust said.
“I think it’s okay to pay a few thousand dollars if it spurs the economy,” Perry noted. “Everybody says, ‘I remember when downtown was bustling.’ It wasn’t that long ago. How do we get back to that?”
“By taking whatever positive you have and building upon that. And it has to be right away, we can’t sit on the information and wait,” said Don Peroutka, chair of Cokato’s planning commission, referring to Cokato and Dassel’s designation as the best place to raise a family in Minnesota.
Elam noted he had leased four buildings in the last two weeks, which shows the economy is getting stronger.
“You have to take what’s out there what you can brag about. Nobody else is going to. Everybody knows schools are a big draw,” Elam added. “We are definitely in an upswing. It’s going to take awhile, but that’s what’s going on.”
The city has information about business development on the website because people want to know whether or not the city is business friendly, Perry said.
“I think the real secret to doing business in Cokato is to look inward. Businesses that start in Cokato don’t move to South Dakota,” noted community member Harlan Anderson.
“We need to take inventory of our own community give aid to those who have paid their dues,” he added. “And we have to market Cokato, to Cokato.”
Anderson then asked how to help a business move to Cokato.
When a business shows interest in moving to Cokato, a meeting usually takes place between the mayor, the chair of the EDA, and the city administrator, said Perry.
Anderson noted a wish list of the kind of businesses the community wants to attract should be established. “Do we want a retail mecca, or a bedroom community?” he said.
“Both, to be honest with you,” said planning commission member Frank Cruz. “The city has to make it really attractive for businesses to move here.”
Companies want handouts, Cruz added. “They don’t have the money to expand right now, and the banks have tightened up on them.”
He also noted that there are businesses in town right now that need help, but are not coming forward because they are embarrassed, or for other reasons.
Anderson suggested doing exit interviews with businesses that have decided to leave town.
“We can’t persuade a business to come if we don’t know why they are leaving,” he said.
Anyone interested in more information about the financial aid programs available to businesses should contact the city of Cokato at (320) 286-5505.