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Evaluating the direction of development

Posted 11/24/15 (Tue)

This is the first of two parts exploring the direction of economic and community development in Crosby and Divide County.
By Cecile Krimm
A slowdown in the oil patch is causing small towns to re-evaluate the staffing and direction of economic development.
Last month the City of Tioga decided to cut the developer’s job to half time and the staff member resigned. In Crosby, a recent city council discussion centered on what returns the city is seeing from developer KayCee Lindsey’s work.
Last week, Alderman Doug Anderson said his questions are partially the result of a lack of direct involvement in development initiatives.
Meanwhile, officials sitting on local development boards remain committed to the concept of community development -- an effort that may include attracting new industry, but runs the gamut from grant writing to assisting existing businesses in ownership transitions.
“It’s not realistic anymore to think someone is going to get a big primary sector project,” said Keith Olson, director of the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) in Williston.
At the same time, “When it’s quiet, that’s when you work harder.”
Olson, who lives in Crosby and formerly held Lindsey’s job, points to the Crosby Kids Daycare as an example of a project that needs ongoing development assistance.
Insurance for future
Sandra Simonson, president of the Divide County Economic Development Council said she doesn’t think it’s bad to question the direction of development, but she’d like to see more people actively involved in the process. She credits Lindsey with twice securing essential state funds for the daycare project. The funds had to be turned back the first time when momentum for the project faltered after a change in city leadership.
Having a community developer, she said, is like paying for insurance. If you wait until there is a disaster or an accident, “it’s too late.”
All you need to understand how challenging development has become, said Simonson, is to look at the price of vacant lots in Crosby. The EDC has seen lots go from give away status 8 years ago to people asking $150,000, “so to me, it’s a total different job. It’s a total different ball game she is trying to deal with.”
And with an aging group of Main Street business owners, Simonson said, the need to focus on retention of existing businesses is growing.
With 11 people on the EDC board, up to 10 more seats on the jobs development board  and five people on the Spirit Fund board, there are at least a couple of dozen people in the community to help  drive the agenda at any time.
Too often, she said, people’s own business concerns get in the way of active engagement. On a recent day when three representatives of the state commerce department were in town, Simonson was the only one of a dozen people who showed up for a meeting Lindsey organized.
Simonson said the lack of attendance reflected poorly on the community.
Anderson’s concerns stem in part from having no measurable goals for development.
“What is the real purpose of it? What does the role entail that we are paying for?” he asked last week, expanding on a line of questioning that arose at the Nov. 2 city council meeting about the developer’s position.
The city pays for about half of the budget -- $30,000. The county pays $26,000 and the balance of the budget comes from state and regional sources.
The money pays Lindsey’s salary and benefits, for a total of $78,810. Another $10,000 is budgeted for travel and supplies to support the office. Last year Lindsey did not accept a wage increase given to all county employees. Her salary of $55,000 is comparable to those of other county department heads.
Anderson asks, “What do we get for that? If there’s nothing to measure it by, that’s a nice donation.”
Olson said the work is measurable. SBDC reports show over $12 million in investments in local projects since Lindsey’s arrival in 2011.
“As the Small Business Development Center’s counselor for the area, I assist with business start-ups, business planning, budgets, and cash flow projections,” said Lindsey. 
Between 2011 and 2014, she worked with an average of 23 clients per year, according to the SBDC reporting.
She also oversees the Crosby Visitor’s Promotion Fund, writes grants, helps projects apply for  development funds, is active on the regional Vision West board, prepares Renaissance Zone applications and serves as a liaison between public and non-profit organizations and development boards. She will conclude a year as president of the Crosby Area Chamber next month -- a volunteer role business people have found increasingly difficult to take on.
Next week: More participation, communication may be needed.

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