The Free Press, Mankato, MN

January 1, 2013

Our View: Region shows success, challenges going forward

The Free Press

— As we close out 2012 and look ahead to 2013, the economic and social well-being of the Mankato regional community can be summarized as doing well with areas for improvement.

Many of the positives come down on the economic side of the equation as the Mankato regional economy has outperformed the national and state economy. Job growth in the Mankato/North Mankato Metropolitan Statistical Area has been ahead of other regions of the state and the state as a whole all year long.

Unemployment rates in the Mankato/North Mankato area are below state averages and far below national averages.

The consumer economy appears to be holding its own as well. Trends in Mankato retail sales appear to be up by at least the same level as national averages. Large ticket items like auto sales also show modest growth from last year. Tax collections from Mankato’s lodging tax and from its food and beverage tax are solidly ahead of last year.

Existing home sales also were ahead of last year in six of the last 11 months and down modestly in the other months. Housing starts were also up six of 11 months and very close to last year in three other months.

Commercial building has been somewhat surprising. Several new strip malls have been constructed with new retail stores locating in the market. Several new restaurants have set up shop in Mankato.

In the agricultural economy, farm prices remain solidly above last year and if agriculture land sales are any indication, there appears to be a bright future for years ahead in agriculture.

On the downside, the rate of poverty seems to be growing at an alarming rate. While figures for 2012 are not yet available, the poverty rate in Blue Earth County went from 16.7 percent in 2010 to 18.3 percent in 2011. That is above the national average of 15.9 percent and far above the Minnesota rate of 11.8 percent.

Only four other counties in Minnesota have higher rates of poverty. The level of poverty should get renewed attention by community leaders. Poverty can be a function of job availability but more often it may be a function of worker training and parental support. There are resources in this community that address those issues, particularly the workforce training issues.

But some local anti-poverty efforts do not have the resources they had 10 years ago. The Minnesota Valley Action Council reports its funding per person served is down 23 percent from 10 years ago. Those programs designed to help lift people out of poverty — such as heating assistance, weatherization programs and at-risk teen summer job programs — can serve fewer people in need as resources become tight.

The social indicator of public safety also suggests cause for some concern. So-called “Part 1” crimes in Mankato — including robbery, aggravated assault, theft, auto theft and commercial burglary — were all up year to date through November 2012. Homicide, rape, arson and residential burglaries were down.

Less serious crimes like vandalism, forgery and simple assault were down.

In another trend worth watching, juvenile arrests were up 9 percent in the city of Mankato through November compared to 2011.

In a more hopeful sign, drunk driving arrests were down 7 percent.

Of course, deteriorating social indicators can ultimately drive economic indicators, and looking into 2013, the community should be mindful that a good economy is built on social structure in place that support the people who help drive the economy.