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Foundation grant aims to move east metro market

Though various groups around the east metro continue to work on economic development brought on by extensive transit planning, much of the region faces geographical challenges.

That’s where the new East Metro Strong initiative comes in, hoping to get all brain power together from every corner of the region to use the recently awarded $750,000 McKnight Foundation grant to “move the market” in a prosperous way.

East Metro Strong is a coalition led by the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce, which includes numerous members from Woodbury, Cottage Grove and Washington County.

The group competed for the grant against 17 others and won based on a clear vision that aligned with the foundation’s mission to use funds for economic development, said program director Lee Sheehy.

“There was a wide range of innovative activities,” he said of the proposals. “There were some that were speculative – interesting, but too speculative for us.”

The East Metro Strong initiative, on the other hand, had key areas where development and redevelopment opportunities could bring job creators and grow the economy, he added.

Though the grant will not be dedicated to transit planning, leaders of the group are prepared to use transit development as the backbone of future economic growth.

“We want the east metro to get maximum advantage from employers building out on these transit lines,” said Matt Kramer, president of the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce. “And that’s a great way of helping all of us understand that if all you do is emphasize the commuting, it only applies to a relatively small number of people.”

Compared to the west metro, which is about a decade ahead of the east metro in transit development with multiple lines soon to be running through Minneapolis, St. Paul and the Mall of America, the east metro is geographically challenged.

When looking at the west metro, Minneapolis lies on the eastern edge of a large Hennepin County, Kramer said.

“So when they draw a 20-mile line to the north, to the west, to the south, it draws 20 miles and they’re still in Hennepin County,” he said. “So how many counties they have to coordinate with? One.

“If you’re in downtown St. Paul and you’re drawing a line out to Woodbury, how many counties do you have to deal with? Two.”

And if transit lines are planned even further outside county borders to Inver Grove Heights, South St. Paul or Hastings, then Dakota County enters the picture.

East Metro Strong will not take over the work of groups in Woodbury like the Gateway Corridor Commission, or the Red Rock Corridor, which includes Cottage Grove, but rather help them overcome barriers that come with such large projects, said Ryan O’Connor, policy director for Ramsey County.

“What is the next step to bump Gateway up the list of transit opportunities so we can get that moving as quickly as possible,” he said as an example.

East Metro Strong is planning to form a governing board and work with the McKnight Foundation throughout the two-year process.

O’Connor said the work is just beginning on all the planning that will eventually produce “cranes in the air and holes in the ground” on sites like the former State Farm building in Woodbury, the vacant Ford Plant in St. Paul and empty residential estate waiting to be developed.

“Cranes in the air and holes in the ground are often a good way for people to see development happening in this region,” he said.

Kramer said the region is also challenged with having different types of land from residential to business and agriculture. Representatives from each of the three counties will help figure out how major investments affect their areas.

“It’s entirely conceivable we can have a transit line that actually touches all three counties,” he said. “And think of the level of coordination and the level of shared enthusiasm, shared planning — all the things that have to happen when you go from one entity to two and then expand that into three.”

Representatives from the city of Woodbury, 3M, Ramsey County, HealthEast and numerous other entities have been invited to participate in a brainstorming session this week. Washington County Board Chairwoman Lisa Weik already signed on to take part in the process.

“It’s very much a political process and it’s one of creating this vision of what the east metro could look like,” Kramer said.

Riham Feshir
Riham Feshir is a reporter and photographer for the Woodbury Bulletin. Her coverage includes Woodbury City Hall, Washington County Board of Commissioners and business news.  Follow Riham on Twitter @RihamFeshir for the latest updates.