The Free Press, Mankato, MN

March 20, 2013

Mankato presses its case at Capitol

By Dan Linehan
The Free Press

ST. PAUL — Kyle Mrozek, vice president of the Mankato MoonDogs, didn't come to the Capitol to talk baseball. He came to talk about Highway 14 and Mankato's proposed civic center expansion.

"We've been banging the drum for years," Mrozek said of the push to turn Highway 14 into a four-lane road to New Ulm.

These improvements would provide only incidental improvements to his business, but Mrozek sees his participation in Greater Mankato's lobbying efforts as part of being a responsible businessman. The 120 or so Mankato-area leaders who traveled to St. Paul Wednesday were largely staying on message, though they were also telling personal stories.

The fourth annual two-day event is about telling the story of how Mankato area businesses contribute to the quality of life in Minnesota, said Jonathan Zierdt, president and CEO of Greater Mankato Growth. Whether it's Angie's Kettle Corn eaten at a Twins game or soybeans processed in Mankato, the idea is to create an "emotional connection" to the area, Zierdt said. To that effect, about 30 businesses set up booths in a downtown St. Paul hotel for the evening reception.

First, though, they had to find the legislators.

The lobbying started in the Capitol rotunda at about 2 p.m., as the Mankatoans assembled and formed up into groups. They tackled different topics, such as education and economic development, and went off to scheduled appointments with lawmakers in the relevant committees. Other groups dropped off pamphlets, and still others grabbed lawmakers for five-minute briefing sessions.

Mrozek's group, which focused on economic development, had a meeting with Bob Gunther, a Fairmont Republican. Gunther supports both the civic center expansion and the highway work, Mrozek said.

So is preaching to the choir really worth the group's time?

"These are the people who will push for these bills to pass," Mrozek said.

Optimism was the byword of the day, though some were less sanguine about Mankato's odds to get its civic center project in an off-year for bonding.

Rep. Dean Urdahl, a Republican from Grove City, "doesn't think this is the year" for the civic centers, said Eric Harriman, coordinator of the City Center Partnership. But Harriman said just being at the Capitol shows Mankato has a newfound strength.

"We don't have to measure our wins in getting everything we ask for," he said.

It was a difficult week for legislators to find time.

Another group, also focusing on economic development, had a tentative meeting with Hutchinson Republican Scott Newman. But after the nine-person group filed into a conference room, they were told the senator wouldn't be available. Oh, and the conference room was booked.

"Make yourselves comfortable, but get outta here," a legislative assistant told the room, jokingly.

In order to narrow the topics it has to deal with, the Legislature establishes deadlines each year for committee action on bills. The second such deadline is March 22, and legislators were scrambling to make sure their bills make it in under the wire.

Only a handful of legislators, including Rep. Tony Cornish and Rep. Clark Johnson, made it to the evening reception.

Even so, Zierdt suggested that the networking was part of what makes the event work. He said not every city in the state has this level of civic participation.

And others on the trip found it worth their time.

Cody Nickel, a Minnesota State University student, wanted to talk about higher-education funding, especially now that Gov. Mark Dayton has pledged increases in state support.

"It's a good year for us and we're just trying to make it as good as it can be," he said.

And Peter Olson, executive director of the Children's Museum of Southern Minnesota, was making the rounds of a committee that helps to disburse proceeds from the 3/8th percent sales tax.

The event continues this morning, with high-level state officials, including Dayton, slated to speak at the hotel.