The Free Press, Mankato, MN

December 31, 2013

Our View: Mankato region shows progress in 2013

Why it matters: The Mankato region has shown economic progress but also some warning signs

The Mankato Free Press

---- — A look back at 2013 to examine the Mankato area’s progress as a regional community shows more positives than negatives and some encouraging signs that the area may indeed be breaking out to the next level of growth.

That growth will likely be driven by an increasing regional population base, a public and private service sector that will serve that base and continual gains by the regional retail sector.

For the first time in a long time, industrial development has also shown significant gains and that may further increase the skilled labor force, which in turn helps bolster average wages.

The recent need and voter approval of $70 million in Mankato school expansions, including a new east side middle school, is indicative of the population growth. The Mankato school age population has grown about 10 percent over the last 10 years with projections showing another 10 percent growth in the next five years.

The growth not only drives the need for new and upgraded educational facilities, but also suggests a growth in a key demographic – families and households – that drives economic activity. Hints of this have been showing up in the last two or three years with the growth in strip mall developments housing service businesses from pizza shops to entertainment and clothing retailers.

The service industry, including new eating and drinking establishments, has been on the rise, with announcements of new restaurants almost monthly. The entertainment and eating venues spur other developments including city center office/residential combination structures. The office tower/restaurant/housing development of the Tailwind group for South Front Street and Riverfront Drive is the first of its size in decades.

Industrial growth will further diversify the region’s economic base. The Wal-Mart distribution center will begin construction this spring and be hiring an estimated 300 to 500 workers by 2015. Other industrial developments such as Imperial Plastics and possible expansion of MTU Onsite Energy will support the new growth. The medical facilities are also expanding their operations and Mankato Clinic is in the midst of an $8.9 million expansion of its Wickersham campus.

The unprecedented growth in economic activity comes with social issues that will continue to be a big challenge for the big cities and small communities of the Mankato area. Blue Earth County has one of the highest poverty rates in the state. While some of those numbers are impacted by non-traditional students returning to one of five higher education institutions in the area, it should be a real concern for the community.

As the region has grown, we’ve experienced more serious crime. The number of regional homicides in the last four years has exceeded that of what has been the norm given a quick review of Free Press archives. With a total of nine murders over the last four years in the nine-county Mankato region, the number is troubling. These kind of crimes still have an impact on how safe people feel in their community.

Violent crime such as aggravated assaults were up in Mankato in 2012 but have shown a downward trend this year through October, the most recent month statistics are available.

These trends can fluctuate from year to year, but they are worth watching closely as public safety is a key measure of a healthy and safe community.

Social scientists will point out that economic stability and strength of a region can often be preventative medicine for social ills. So going forward, the Mankato region will need to see how it can assist companies to create good-paying jobs.

Education will be key. As manufacturing jobs start to come back to the U.S., employers still say there remains a skills gap. A recent report on the subject had some 40 percent of Minnesota plant managers saying a skills gap prevented them from hiring all the people they need.

Educational institutions in the Mankato area have made strides in developing employer partnerships and that should benefit the entire region moving forward. More of the same is needed.

Overall, the Mankato region can look back at 2013 and feel good about economic progress. Now, we just need to work to make sure social progress follows economic progress.