Patience and Resilience
On Four-Year Anniversary, Greater Fergus Falls Looks Forward and Back
"The future of economic development is planning. You can't achieve economic development if you don't have a plan – it's not gonna just fall out of the sky."
- Rebecca Petersen, President of the Greater Fergus Falls Board of Directors
In 2017, Fergus Falls had a plan, and it wasn't working. What followed resulted in the formation of Greater Fergus Falls (GFF) the next year, which this month celebrates its fourth anniversary, but it was no easy road. Here we offer a look back at the exciting and sometimes nerve-wracking history, including peeks behind the scenes and stories never before told publicly. Oh, and there's a bit of big news to share, too, and a little celebrating for good measure, but let's start at the beginning.
Closures and Conflict
The closure of the Fergus Falls Kmart in 2014 was news, but it could easily have been mistaken as an isolated event. In the following years, however, Kmart was trailed by many others, including Sun Mart, Shopko, Herberger's, Hedahl's, and Target. Rumors ran wild that anyone could be next, and the management of other local big-box stores, like Fleet Farm, issued public responses assuring the community that they wouldn't shutter.
"Pressure really started to build on City Hall as dominoes started to fall," recalls Fergus Falls Mayor Ben Schierer.
City Hall had a support system in place via a collaboration of municipal boards and commissions, to include the Economic Improvement Commission (EIC), Planning Commission, and Business Development of Fergus Falls, but that system was fraught with other complexities that weakened its effectiveness. The city's primary economic development entity of the time was the EIC, which had been housed within City Hall but operated under the direction of an independent board and a staff that were not city employees. When it was discovered, around 2016, that a state statute limited the city's maximum contribution to the EIC to a total of $50,000 a year—which was insufficient for the commission's combination of projects and staff—the solution was for EIC staff to become city employees, in the process taking on municipal projects in addition to their existing work.
"Which was kind of the beginning of the end," says City Administrator Andrew Bremseth.
The problem, at least in part, was that EIC staff were now under an increased workload and forced to decide whether to allocate time toward city projects or the work of the EIC's board, which remained independent of City Hall. And with this new staff now officially a part of the local government, taxpayers and elected officials wanted input on economic development projects and clarification on who, exactly, had a say in the EIC's work. Closures combined with the minor controversy caused tension among board members, some of whom opted to quit their positions. Bremseth says it was evident the new arrangement couldn't work long term. Citizens felt too little was being done to recruit and retain businesses, and the city needed a new plan.
"City Hall is really good at doing certain things," Schierer says. "There are other things that they're not as good at as the private sector." It's not a knock against the talents of government work, explains Bremseth, so much as recognizing that business owners, for example, are more qualified in matters of business development than civil engineers or public planners.
Around February of 2018, city leaders received an invitation from a private economic development group in the city of Bemidji, known as Greater Bemidji. Greater Bemidji represented a different sort of private-public partnership, and Bremseth, Schierer, and members of the city's economic development staff traveled north to meet with the Greater Bemidji board, their city leaders, and a handful of successful entrepreneurs who shared their own success stories, to include the recent development of Delta Dental, which was said to be the result in part of the work of Greater Bemidji.
The accomplishments came from having a private entity guided by successful business owners that could handle recruiting new businesses, aiding entrepreneurs with big ideas, and providing on-going training and guidance to existing firms – more than could be reasonably asked of a single member of City Hall staff. Bremseth says that the model allowed City Hall and the county government to have a "seat at the table" regarding economic development, but much of the work would fall to experts in the private sector. This also meant increased confidentiality for developers who may feel intimidated to bring business proposals before the city during an open (and often televised) meeting of the city council or planning commission.
Bremseth says they knew there was no time to lose given mounting public pressure. Schierer agreed that any action was better than none.
"The second best thing we could do right now is the wrong thing," he told Bremseth. "The best thing we could do is the right thing. The worst thing we could do is nothing."
City council members agreed, and on July 2, 2018, they authorized Schierer to undertake the creation of Greater Fergus Falls.
"We've lost a lot of jobs," said Councilman Anthony Hicks that evening. "I would support the mayor, and the time now is for action, for us to do something different. Tonight is the beginning of turning the tide."
Learning from the Past
Greater Fergus Falls needed structure. Some adjustments were made to the Greater Bemidji model to accommodate the needs of this city. Most notably, where members of Greater Bemidji were required to also be financial sponsors, Schierer felt it was more important that GFF board members be passionate about their community and represent a diverse background.
"I saw it as a really intentional effort to diversify," says NeTia Bauman, today CEO of Greater Fergus Falls. "Mayor Schierer was incredibly visionary about this whole thing, but also he was intentional. He wanted there to be equal representation of gender and industry – he wanted all of the voices to be at the table."
What resolved was a 22-member board that featured healthcare, big business, professional firms, the arts, and education. Not all of the new board members agreed with the concept of Greater Fergus Falls, which Bauman says led to much "healthy debate" at those earliest meetings, as the group sought to define how they would move forward, how they would generate leads, and which industries to go after and how.
But Greater Fergus Falls also needed a leader and figurehead. They needed someone who could get things done and speak on the organization's behalf. Schierer was familiar with older development efforts in the city and specifically the success of "Project 500," a 1984 undertaking with the goal of creating 500 jobs in 500 days. The man behind that, Bruce Thom, was a noted go-getter, and Schierer invited Thom to meet.
Thom, who enters any room with a certain bravado, arrived to the meeting with a toolbox in one hand and a newspaper in the other. He slammed the toolbox onto the table before Schierer, slapped down the newspaper, and, pointing at the headline, said, "See this? I get things done." Schierer looked to the paper and back to Thom. He paused before saying, "Bruce, this newspaper's from 1989. It's 2018." Unperturbed, Thom laughed and took a seat. He told Schierer he needed a few things to get started but would be willing to take the job.
The meeting was never intended as a job offer, but the board ultimately approved hiring Thom as CEO, and his intensity and confidence put all eyes on Greater Fergus Falls. At one of the organization's first meetings, in July of 2018, he addressed the city's current state in no uncertain terms, booming, "I don't understand what the hell you've done the last 10 years; I just don't get it. It looks to me like a lot of studies, a lot of surveys, a lot of stuff – but things have been going down, down, down."
He wanted change and defied obstacles. Greater Fergus Falls under Thom looked for big victories and hosted town hall meetings highlighting early successes and future goals. The initial mantra of "retain, revitalize, recruit" morphed into the "Fergus Falls Yes" campaign that same year, promising an atmosphere of support for new and growing business development advertised through buttons, billboards, and bumper stickers.
"The word is yes," Thom told the local newspaper. "Fergus Falls Yes."
Finding Support, Providing Support
Bauman, who at the time served as executive assistance to Greater Fergus Falls, says the first six months were exciting but at times overwhelming and nerve wracking. From the city's standpoint, Bremseth says the first eighteen months were tough, and he worried the organization could fail to thrive if Greater Fergus Falls didn't find support from the community and its business leaders. There was a challenge in public perception, with many seeing GFF as another arm of City Hall, rather than the separate and private entity it was.
Summing Greater Fergus Falls up in a word, Bauman chooses "resilience." Under Thom and later CEO Annie Deckert, who assumed the role when Thom retired, GFF focused on transparency, accountability, and meeting questions and concerns with information and education. "It took a while," she says, but the continuous effort and focus on progress has allowed Greater Fergus Falls to establish itself and its expertise. Support from the community has led to growth and greater opportunity.
More to the point, strengthening the relationship between Greater Fergus Falls, City Hall, the community, and developers has increased investor confidence, and the increased support from sponsors and successful grant applications has opened the door for bigger projects and greater outreach. During the pandemic, when a number of industries struggled through government-mandated closures and reduced traffic, Greater Fergus Falls raised money to give kids free haircuts, movie passes, and use of the local bowling alley.
In filling vacant spaces—specifically former big box stores, a major component of the founding impetus—Greater Fergus Falls has aided in the adaptive reuse of 200,000 square feet of retail space, including the former Sun Mart building and the former Shopko.
"Big box is not what it used to be," Bauman says, but Shopko today, as an example, serves in part as warehouse space for a local manufacturer that would otherwise be unable to grow without the storage. The remaining square footage serves Balance Gymnastics. Balance Gymnastics has grown exponentially—"They can't keep up," remarks Bauman—providing over 20 new jobs and encouraging more traffic downtown.
The Sun Mart building now functions as the new home of Cornerstone Cabinets & Countertops and Midwest Bevel Edge. The former Target building was purchased by the local school district for use as a new early childhood facility (the Lincoln School), and the former Hedahl's in under renovation by Dental Specialists of Fergus Falls.
Co-Working Toward New Solutions
"I think having local, on-the-ground resources is so important," says Bremseth with regards to helping new startups get off the ground. "We need to continue to foster entrepreneurship because we have talented people right here in Fergus Falls that have passions and skillsets. It takes one opportunity for them to explode and [become] the next big thing."
In March of 2020, Greater Fergus Falls launched its Entrepreneur Initiative to provide free, one-on-one coaching and technical assistance to local entrepreneurs. In its first nine months, the program served 37 entrepreneurs and launched 10 new businesses at the height of the pandemic. Bauman calls the program an overwhelming success but says, "We learned, because of the pandemic, so many existing businesses needed a higher level of support." So the program adapted to offer services to established firms. Two years later, the Entrepreneur Initiative has served nearly 130 clients and launched 55 new startups.
Bauman says that neither the big-box renovations nor the continued success of the Entrepreneur Initiative would have been possible without the support of the community, for which reason she says sometimes these "invisible wins" have as much impact long-term as larger development projects that make the news.
"While we continue to work on those big development projects, it's really important for us to not lose sight of our small businesses," Bauman says. She says the overwhelming feedback from entrepreneurs who have been part of Greater Fergus Falls's programs is that they want more – more peer-to-peer mentoring, more training, and why not a physical space in downtown Fergus Falls to collaborate, create, and connect?
"And that's what we're going to do."
Stopping short of spilling all the details, Bauman says Greater Fergus Falls is actively working to create a hybrid workspace to allow remote workers, consultants, or early-stage entrepreneurs a low-cost co-working environment. Existing businesses, too, can rent a portion of the space permanently to facilitate remote-work employees or work through growth and renovations. With 24/7 access, on-site training and mentoring, and business coaches available during scheduled business hours, she expects the facility to promote efficiency, productivity, and collaboration.
GFF Board President Rebecca Petersen says the project had the unanimous support of the Greater Fergus Falls board. "It's gonna go gangbusters," she says with a smile.
Expect more information in the days ahead.
A Greater Future
Petersen says that Greater Fergus Falls today is in the best spot it could be. She sees Fergus Falls as becoming a destination for quality of life in the years ahead, especially as more companies embrace remote work opportunities accelerated by the pandemic. Quoting a friend, she calls the community a "door to the lakes and a window to the prairie." Having been on the GFF board since the first meeting in 2018, she wants people to know how successful the organization already is.
In the years ahead, Bauman hopes to see continued investment in recreation, amenities, and the river. "I want to make sure that the businesses we have are growing, [that] new businesses are thriving," she says. She wants to continue toward diversifying local industry and encouraging the exploration of new hybrid retail business approaches that are popping up elsewhere. As new businesses arrive, she anticipates new housing developments needed to support new residents and she wants businesses old, new, and yet-to-be to see Greater Fergus Falls as a support resource in good times and otherwise.
"We can help troubleshoot and we can help you celebrate equally," she says. "I love to be able to have the resources and that connectivity to get people where they need to be
Bremseth, meanwhile, says the council and City Hall are ready and eager to work with major industry looking to develop in Fergus Falls.
"They bring philanthropy, they bring reinvestment, they bring good-paying jobs, and stability," he says, and he recognizes that it will fall to City Hall to facilitate the permitting, zoning, and development of housing and infrastructure needed to maintain that growth. "We're doing this collaboratively," he says of the relationship with Greater Fergus Falls.
Economic development is the business of change as much as it's the change of business. "I have often said that what we're seeing today is the result of what we did or didn't do ten years ago," explains Schierer. Bauman says that Greater Fergus Falls will remain committed with a genuine interest in the flourishing of Fergus Falls and a focus on economic development. She says the work is ever changing, with no final finish line.
"The post keeps moving," she says, explaining that she enjoys the challenge. Every time a goal is reached, a new one appears farther out. "The job's not done; we have to keep going."
- R.C. Drews for Greater Fergus Falls