“From an economic development standpoint, housing really is the 500-pound gorilla,” Mary Thompson, executive director of The Heartland Lakes Development Commission (HLDC), told county commissioners Tuesday.
A lack of people and affordable housing is the root cause of labor shortages in this area, she said
“We have a lot of employers with double-digit openings that cannot find enough people to be able to staff the openings,” she said.
Once there is housing, Thompson said, then the critical lack of child care is the next issue to address.
Housing is “really, really critical” in the area, she continued. After speaking with a real estate association, Thompson said she learned there are 14 active listings in the 56470 zip code, with one under $200,000, four between $200,000 to $400,000, two between $400,000 to $600,000, four between $600,000 to $800,000 and three that are $800,000-plus.
Thirteen of 16 homes in the $200,000-plus range were on the market 10 days or less.
Inventory is at an all-time low, Thompson said.
“We do still have areas of the county that are either unserved or underserved, so that is an issue for the availability of working at home, remote education for our students,” Thompson noted.
County Administrator Jeff Cadwell said, “It’s very likely that bang for the buck on broadband development would be through the county, and not through the townships, because if we’re going through the RFP (request for proposal) process to talk about bringing developers online and working with the maps and identifying the areas where there are shortages, that work has already been done” at the county level.
Thompson said all ARP money must be expended by Dec. 24, 2024. However, there are few providers able to install broadband, she said. “It’s all about first come, first serve. If broadband is really a priority here, then the quicker you can after that and on the list is something you’ll want to do.”
According to the latest information, Thompson said the county is short about 70 to 100 child care slots.
“The most critical thing is those who work shifts,” she said.
A lot of opportunities are being made available through the 151-page American Recovery Plan (ARP), Thompson said.
“A lot of them are direct to organizations and they are being provided through the Small Business Administration,” she said.
Thompson said a direct appropriation from the federal government to the county “allows you a laundry list of things you can do to really help address” community needs.
One ARP program supports affordable housing development in a qualified census tract. The entire city limits of Park Rapids is eligible, Thompson said. “Affordable” is for a household of four that are in an income limit of about $56,000.
“It’s really workforce housing,” she added. “It’s housing that most of the working folks here can afford to live in.”
ARP also provides for water, sewer and broadband improvements.
Other ARP provisions let the state government make subgrants directly to childcare providers. Economic Development assistance is reserved for communities that suffered economic injury as a result of job losses in the travel, tourism and outdoor recreation sectors.
Thompson pointed out that congressionally directed spending requests have been reopened. Applications are due May 21, 2021 for fiscal year 2022.
She suggested submitting funding requests to the Community Facilities Grant Program under the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Two projects that come to mind, she said, are a new roof for the historic county courthouse and an elevator for the city-owned Armory Arts & Events Center.
In addition, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has a grant that “could potentially spin some infrastructure-related, subdivision development targeted toward workforce housing.”
In the Minnesota Legislature’s omnibus tax bill, there is potentially an additional round of county business relief grants.
“Each county is expected to receive some allocation of business relief,” she said. These funds could be used for business expansion.
Thompson said the county will have to wait to see if the legislation is passed.
Omnibus housing and finance policy bills may have a matching source for a housing trust fund. Housing trust funds are established by local government. “It’s local dollars that can be used in a whole variety of ways locally,” she explained. “If a local unit of government wants to initiate a local housing trust fund, there is a potential that those funds could be matched at the state level. That may be something worth exploring.”
The bill also includes a workforce housing grant application program, “which we have used here very successfully,” Thompson said, referring to the 56-unit Meadow’s Edge Apartments and Meadow View Apartments recently constructed in Park Rapids.
Thompson said there are business incentives, like tax abatements and tax increment financing. Revolving loan funds are another helpful tool for business assistance, entry cost assistance and rehabilitation loan programs.
“There’s a lot to unpack here,” county commissioner David De La Hunt said at the conclusion of Thompson’s presentation. As for ARP funds, “we have to prioritize and figure out where exactly we’re going to spend that money and how.”
County commissioner Char Christenson asked Thompson to develop guidelines for townships on how to use ARP monies.
“As with the prior award, the local units of government have the authority to transfer to another local unit of government or a subset,” Thompson said, like the Hubbard County Housing and Redevelopment Authority.
Cadwell noted that ARP funds are not received in one lump sum. He recommended that the county work with townships to determine how much money will be awarded and how it might impact economic, broadband or housing development.
ARP and congressional aid might “seed” other economic development tools.
Thompson planned to attend the monthly township association meeting.