The Thriving ‘Land Between the Lakes’

City of Albert Lea, MN

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Municipal boosters in Albert Lea, a small city based in Southeastern, Minnesota, were asked a simple question: what is the main thing you want the public to know about your hometown?

“We are a beautiful community that’s open for business,” replies Albert Lea Economic Development Agency (ALEDA) Executive Director Ryan Nolander. City officials are eager to attract new business while enhancing the existing economic base.
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Albert Lea is in the area of multiple bodies of water including Fountain Lake, Albert Lea Lake, and Pickerel Lake. The city, in fact, is known as ‘the land between the lakes.’ All of this water amounts to an abundance of recreational opportunities, including swimming, canoeing, kayaking and fishing to name a few.

The city is near the junction of Interstate-90 and I-35, less than one hundred miles from the Twin Cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul. According to the 2010 Census, Albert Lea had a population of 18,016 people.

The Albert Lea Medical Center – part of the Mayo Clinic Health System – is both the main healthcare facility in town and the city’s leading employer.

“Being less than an hour from Rochester, you’ve got that connection to the actual Mayo Clinic. If there’s a major issue, there’s opportunity in Rochester for world renowned medical treatment,” says Nolander.

Other job sectors in Albert Lea include metal fabrication, food processing and the public and post-secondary school systems. Albert Lea hosts a branch of Riverland Community College, which has three campuses in Minnesota.

Nolander says Albert Lea is quite well-positioned to develop sectors such as agriculture, advanced manufacturing and the food manufacturing industry. As a tie-in to the latter, he envisions expanded food manufacturing, packaging and distribution operations. Data centers are also something the city is examining.

While there are many jobs to go around, one of Albert Lea’s challenges is finding workers to fill them. Unemployment in Albert Lea hovers around 3.5 percent – a very low rate that is a mixed blessing.

“A lot of economists think when unemployment hits 3.5 percent, you’re pretty much at full employment. [This means, however] we’ve got a lot of employers looking for employees,” states Nolander. “It makes our job of economic development difficult, because how do you recruit a new business to come in when you can’t fill the positions that are already here?”

To meet this challenge, ALEDA and other groups work with area students to raise awareness of local job opportunities and internships. Beyond providing good wages and working conditions, area businesses are encouraged to be creative in the effort to attract new workers. This can be done by offering flexible schedules and family time off, for example.

ALEDA works with regional partners to entice newcomers to Albert Lea and inspire former residents to return. “As with the majority of communities in greater Minnesota, students in high school or college here graduate and go to the big city. Then, we sometimes see them coming back later in life when they’re settling down, getting married, having a family. We’re picking up some of that which is good, but we still need to do a better job retaining students,” says Nolander.

The Albert Lea Business Development Center (ALBDC) is another tool the city uses to stimulate economic growth. The business incubator was launched in 2002 and is designed to accommodate start-ups run by “people working in their basement, working in their garage,” explains Nolander.

“We provide space for them so they can separate their home life from their work life, without having to make a huge investment in a building. They pay one flat rent and don’t have to worry about snow removal, lawn care or property taxes. It’s all included. They can focus on growing their business.”

At present, there are six businesses currently using the center. ALEDA has offices in the same building and oversees the start-up companies in the space.

Albert Lea has other ways to push development. The city can offer companies help in financing equipment purchases, and it sometimes waives permit fees for firms. Similarly, the city has a program under which people who build new homes can see their property taxes abated for several years.

The city traces its roots to 1855 when a small settlement was founded in the area and named after Lieutenant Albert Lea, a topographer who was part of an earlier military expedition to the region. The village and township grew slowly, reaching 262 people in 1860. A city charter was granted in 1878. Two years later, the population neared 2,000 residents. Albert Lea entered a period of rapid growth, reaching 4,500 residents in 1900, then 10,169 three decades later. The city’s population peaked at 19,418 in 1970.

During the 1950s, Albert Lea opened the first community-owned industrial park in the United States. The Jobs Industrial Park, as it was called, still exists. There are currently four industrial parks operating in the city, including the Northaire Industrial Park (launched in 1976), the ALEDA Industrial Park (launched in 2009) and the I-35/I-90 Business Industrial Park (also launched in 2009). At present, there are over 200 acres of buildable land available for companies between all the existing industrial parks, says Nolander.

Two years ago, Albert Lea was included in a list of “Top 10 Affordable Small Towns Where You’d Actually Want to Live” posted on www.realtor.com. The article cited Albert Lea’s low unemployment rate, low cost of living, recreational opportunities and the presence of Riverland Community College. The piece noted that the median household income in Albert Lea was around $47,715 a year with the median housing price around $100,000.

Living in Albert Lea is significantly less expensive than residing in Minneapolis-St. Paul, states Nolander. He lists some other possible reasons why Albert Lea made the list, including its low crime rate and the beauty of the community.

“We have a very good school system, great parks, nice lakes,” and compact municipal boundaries. “Going across town for our residents can be done in approximately ten minutes. Everything is close,” he adds.

Albert Lea has plenty of other recreational opportunities too, in addition to parks and lakes. “Being in Minnesota, we’ve got a couple of hockey rinks that are busy all winter long. We’ve also got facilities for basketball tournaments and other recreational activities,” says Nolander.

Popular community events include Wind Down Wednesdays in which part of downtown is blocked off one day each month in June, July, and August. The space is then turned over to vendors, musicians and other entertainers for the benefit of the community. Albert Lea also features Eddie Cochran Days as the pioneering rock ’n’ roll musician who wrote ‘Summertime Blues’ was born in Albert Lea. There is a history museum that highlights local culture and a Freeborn County Fair each year since Albert Lea is the Freeborn County seat.

In 2009, Albert Lea became the first city in America to take part in the Blue Zones Project, run under the auspices of Healthways, a Sharecare company. The Blue Zones Project seeks to improve the health and well-being of people in selected communities. Improvements are achieved through environmental, economic and policy-related tweaks.

The nine-month pilot program saw Albert Lea add sidewalks, bike lanes and walking paths to enhance its downtown area. A tobacco reduction campaign was launched and a local grocery store highlighted healthy food choices. Parks were renovated, community gardens expanded and a healthy snack cart option introduced to local schools. Thanks to such measures, Albert Lea employers saved roughly $7.5 million in annual health costs which was primarily due to workers who stopped smoking. Project participants should see their lifespans increase by a projected three years.

Being at the forefront of the Blue Zones Project generated intense media coverage. “People don’t realize how much exposure we’ve received,” says Nolander. “Good Morning America came in here a couple times,” and the city was also featured on a popular Irish television program.

While pleased with the attention the Blue Zones Project and ‘Top 10 Affordable Small Towns’ article drew to Albert Lea, city boosters rely on the personal touch for most of their promotional efforts. ALEDA has an online presence but works hard to forge and strengthen ties with other regional development officials, realtors and site selectors.

As for the next five years, Nolander says, “I hope we would add some population through retaining students that are here now or families moving back. We all want to see tax base creation through new development, whether that is expansion of our existing [economic sector] or bringing new opportunities to town. We want to continue to have a great quality of life – the lakes, the walkability, the low crime rate, good education system. In five years, I hope to continue that growth.”

June 23, 2018, 10:04 AM EDT

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