The Best of Both Worlds
Pine County, MN
Pine County has been around as long as the state of Minnesota. For many years it was a rural, agricultural community made up of smaller towns of about fifteen hundred residents. That began to change with the pan-urban growth out of the Twin Cities (Minneapolis – Saint Paul) in the 1980s and 1990s, and there has been a fair amount of population growth since then, particularly in the southern part of the county…
Pine County has evolved from a principally agricultural community into an industrial and commercial center as well. The county grew enormously from 1970 up until the start of the recent recession, when it was hit hard. It is now starting to pick up again and grow consistently, and has regained pre-recession levels of employment and wage growth. Today, Pine County has reached its current status through well-developed service and hospitality sectors, manufacturing facilities, and diverse commercial development.
The county is located about an hour north of the twin cities, and Interstate 35 runs across the whole length of the county from south to north. The I-35 enables Pine County to have the best of both worlds. Its location on the I-35 corridor makes for easy access to all the attractions and markets of the Twin Cities and Duluth and at the same time, its quaint, small towns and rolling, wooded countryside represent the best of rural living. Robert Musgrove, Coordinator of the Economic Development Office is happy to describe the county. “You can be canoeing on the Snake River and within an hour, get in your car and be at the Minnesota Orchestra in Minneapolis,” he shares. “There is a huge number of cultural resources down in the Twin Cities that are really easy to access for folks that live here.”
The mission of the Pine County Economic Development Office is to grow the county tax base, improve economic diversity, and enhance the quality of life in the county. It does so by developing a county-level effort to create high-wage employment opportunities, and these opportunities are often technology-based jobs. This entails working with existing companies to find ways to help them expand as well as attracting new businesses to the county.
According to Musgrove, “There is a lot that goes with this because companies look for a lot of different things when looking for a locality. They look for labor availability, affordable land and they also look more and more for quality of life.” Because of this, he has gotten involved in housing development, workforce development and other related issues that are all integrated aspects of economic development.
Other than the government and the school districts, the largest employer in the county is the Grand Casino Hinckley, located in the city of the same name. The Grand Casino Hinckley is owned by the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and is a popular destination for fun-seekers from the Twin Cities. It employs around 1800 people. The casino is also known for its fine dining and concerts with big-name acts like Kid Rock and Rascal Flatts. Beyond that, the county is home to a number of smaller companies that manufacture their own products and serve as subcontractors for larger firms in Minneapolis – Saint Paul area.
Healthcare is another major sector for Pine County, and to this end, a brand new, state-of-the-art, technology-intensive hospital was opened in Sandstone by a company named Essentia in the spring of 2017. The project was an eight million dollar investment that created a number of new jobs for the community. The hospital in Mora, FirstLight Health System, built a new clinic about five years ago in Pine City and recently expanded it about a year ago. Quality healthcare is very accessible in Pine County, unlike a lot of other rural counties.
Tourism in Pine County is very popular, and the outdoors are a big part of it. It has attractive communities with a number of lakes, and there are many people from the twin cities who own lakeside cabins in the area. Tourists can enjoy exploring the lakes, the rivers, the woods and the national parks and can also have fun with kayaking, fishing, canoeing and power boating while in the county. Winter sports are popular as well in Pine County; cross country skiing and snowmobiling are two fun options for tourists.
St. Croix State Park and Banning State Park offer multiple outdoor opportunities year-round, and the Nemadji, St. Croix and Chengwatana state forests all provide county residents and tourists with the chance to get close to the natural world. Camping of all sorts is available, from primitive camping to RV camping, and courses are offered in the parks, enabling visitors to learn about things like canoeing, fishing and identifying owls.
An interesting aspect of the community in Pine County is the variety of different activities and events in which to partake. Along with the many different outdoor attractions, the county has a strong and vibrant arts scene. From visual arts to performing arts, it has something creative for everyone and there are arts councils and art coalitions in every community. The music industry is popular in Pine City, which is the largest city in the county with just under four thousand residents. For three years running, it was rated one of the best communities for music education in America by the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM). The Midwest Country Music Theater in Sandstone draws country music acts from all across the Midwest to its quaint performance hall in that community.
Every community in the county has its own festival: in Pine City there is the Pine County Fair in early August that draws about forty thousand people to town over the week; Hinckley has a Corn & Clover Carnival; Sandstone features Quarry days, another annual festival featuring live music and a parade. In the winter, Sandstone has ice climbing events, where people climb vertical ice instead of rock. Climbers come from all over the world to ice-climb in Sandstone. Even smaller towns have festivals, like Askov, which is a city with only four hundred people that holds an annual rutabaga festival. According to Musgrove, “It is a pretty good soirée; they have a parade and the sheriff leads the parade and then drives around the block and ends the parade too.”
If you’re thinking this all holds a certain appeal, you’re not alone; a lot of younger families look for safe communities like Pine County, with a simpler pace of life and where the housing costs are low and the schools are good. To be sure, the small class sizes and personal attention are great benefits for the students in Pine County. The schools all collaborate with each other in order to offer programs that would otherwise be unavailable if the schools were in individual districts. Pine City is home to Pine Technical and Community College, which is a tremendous asset for attracting companies to the area and supporting the current business landscape. The school has an active customized training continuing education department that works directly with companies to estimate training needs for their employees and they are also at the table when a new company comes to town to provide startup training for its workforce.
Not only is Pine County an attractive place for tourists and residents alike, it is also an appealing spot for businesses. The costs are much lower compared to the Twin Cities sixty miles south. Labor costs and land costs and lower, and the labor availability is higher. The unemployment rate is low at 5.6 percent, but 52 percent of the workforce commutes out of county each day to go to work and the bulk of them would love to be able to reduce or eliminate the commute if there were enough high-wage comparable jobs available in their hometowns.
The communities within the county are very supportive of business, and each of them has an industrial park with affordable land as well as revolving loan funds that can be used for business startups or expansions. The Pine County Economic Development Office helps bridge companies with state programs that have special expertise, as the state has a number of programs that are supportive of business creation and development. The Economic Development Office is aware that many of the new jobs that can be created in the community will come from existing companies, so it is working with local companies on a program called economic gardening. This is a national initiative out of the Edward Lowe Foundation whereby a local company is connected with expert consultants in areas like business intelligence, competitive intelligence and electronic marketing for a very affordable rate. The program opens a window of opportunity for businesses to develop new product lines and recruit new types of customers.
There is no doubt, Pine County is a special area of Minnesota where residents can enjoy easy access to big city amenities while living in charming, small towns with a pleasant atmosphere and a high quality of rural life. The county offers plenty of scenic and recreational activities on the many lakes and rivers that make up over twenty three square miles of water. Pine County is known and valued for its affordable housing options and its vibrant, supportive communities.