Commentary: Austin working to position for growth using prudent annexation

Published 7:07 am Saturday, November 10, 2018

By Craig Clark

Austin City Administrator

I read the letter to the Austin Daily Herald from Lansing Township resident John Ryther. While I appreciate his voice in this discussion, readers should also be aware of some additional facts to more fully understand the issues related to annexation and the city’s recent actions. The city of Austin is not looking to consume Lansing Township but rather to position ourselves for economic growth and encourage higher valued jobs by working with Lansing Township in hopes of developing a joint resolution for annexation.

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Austin, Minnesota, is inextricably linked to the broader agriculture community that Mr. Ryther implores he is working to preserve. Our largest employer would not exist here without the reliable feedstock and animal production which are abundant in the fields surrounding Austin and beyond. I think most would agree, Mower County and Austin are both considered “ag country.”

We also know that our treasured farmers depend on the processing which has quite literally helped make our community known across the globe for products that carry a small part of Austin, Minnesota, and Mower County right along with them. Our township and city tide rises and falls together.

As the City of Austin, Development Corporation of Austin and the Austin Port Authority have seen economic development projects come forward, we have learned a lot regarding what businesses are looking for in siting potential business expansions. Some of those projects certainly have not progressed as we had hoped, but it should not mean we don’t learn from the experience on how we can make things smoother for business growth. As part of this recognition, the City of Austin acquired what, at the time, was the Cook Farm along Highway 218, which is now called Creekside Business Park. The city, along with Austin Utilities, has invested around $2 million in infrastructure to make this industrial park “shovel ready” or otherwise situated for quick development. Without this type of investment we wouldn’t meet many development requirements and otherwise be ineligible to respond to proposals. Austin shouldn’t sit by idly and hope economic growth will happen. We must take a proactive approach to attract new businesses.

Furthermore, working with the Department of Employment and Economic Development, we also know we need to focus not only on being able to develop quickly, but have ownership of large tracts or identify tracts with the flexibility for expansion and have utilities preferably ready to go or within an affordable proximity. These are factors that prompt developers to ask for annexation into a full service municipality for those areas in the township which would reasonably make sense. This is common around any developing city across the country. Our annexation efforts are not some plot against the township, as suggested, but rather a simple reality that service demands cannot reasonably be met by Lansing Township and these areas are contiguous to the city’s boundary and necessary infrastructure. This says nothing of the potential financial incentives that the city can provide which are often a consideration of economic development projects as well.

We’ve been asked why we need to annex the property now. Why can’t we just wait until the development is at hand? We should be clear the city’s request for joint annexation was originated at the request of a landowner. We’ve worked to be transparent about the city’s position on annexation and not overstate the case. A project could have the patience to add annexation to their list of development tasks, but we prefer to again be positioned for growth and remove barriers where we can. We know economic development projects operate in a very competitive environment and if we can remove one of those barriers we want to do so, especially given our experience that once developers make the decision to move forward they always focus on how quickly they can start. Adding one more step to a potential project could very well tip the scale against a project and jeopardize our selection.

Every action the city has taken has been consistent with Minnesota Statutes and understands the balance between a fully functioning city with a full infrastructure complement and a township. This is not meant as a criticism but rather a statement of fact. We have worked on two occasions to do this cooperatively in a joint annexation resolution of mutual agreement. Austin will grow and since our inception in 1856, after over 162 years, Lansing Township has lost 13 percent and retained 87 percent of their area to the city of Austin. This is hardly anything close to what has been characterized as “reckless sprawl”. The City of Austin will continue to make proactive decisions so economic development and job growth can benefit both the city of Austin and Lansing Township.