Publisher, The Caledonia Argus
A recent survey evaluated Caledonia’s current business environment, identifying positive characteristics, future business needs and aspirations, and areas for improvement within the city limits.
City Clerk/Administrator Adam Swann and Assistant Michelle Ellingson said the survey yielded mostly positive comments on Caledonia’s business environment. The survey was conducted by the Caledonia Economic Development Authority (EDA).
“The intent was to identify growth opportunities, learn about business needs and provide a vehicle for the business community to exchange ideas and perspectives,” said Ellingson.
Swann added that they were pleased that 95% of respondents said they were happy or very happy with their current location in Caledonia. No one said they were unhappy, he noted.
There are more encouraging answers, for example almost half of the respondents indicated that they are planning expansion or improvement projects.
The survey asked businesses within the city limits various questions about their current business, location, planned improvements and current needs.
Most companies are in Caledonia because the owners grew up here or because of the geographical location. Businesses enjoy being downtown on Main Street and Kingston Street or near Quillin’s and the Subway. Several stated that they were planning expansions or considering improvement projects.
Community events such as Founder’s Day and sporting events ensure more walk-in customers and increase the sales volume. Businesses would also like to see other types of businesses come to Caledonia such as more restaurants, a clothing store, a youth facility, a meat market and a gift shop to name a few.
Some of the challenges businesses are currently facing include staffing levels, shortages of inventories, work-life balance, and the inability to modernize a leased building.
Many companies have received or plan to receive assistance from the Houston County EDA or the City EDA. Others have a tax break, some can take advantage of a US Department of Agriculture grant, city loans or Covid-19 relief funds.
Businesses want more information or support from the city on incentives and funding, communication about local events, buildings for sale, support and encouragement for businesses to advertise, community/city support to attract more businesses, and in turn homeowners and families, that stay involved, offers scholarships for students to learn in a professional field, more downtown events, use of parks, and a more welcoming environment for new families.
Attributes of Caledonia that make it a good place to live and work include a variety of businesses, small town feel, safe community and friendliness.
“Every time we hear from a potential company, we reach out to them. We tried harder. We’re doing everything we can,” Swann said. “Companies appreciate that we want to bring them to the city. Often they don’t see that personal touch.”
He added the city is doing everything it can to find a location, whether it’s a vacant space or an existing building to be rented, and is promoting the city’s strengths. Ellingson added that they educate prospective companies about available financing. This information is continuously updated.
Caledonia has a lot to offer, he said, like affordable housing, lower per capita taxes, a great elementary school district, great health care and proximity to hospitals in La Crosse, Wisconsin.
Ellingson added Caledonia is a very safe community with a proactive police agency. She noted the city’s walkability and recent quality of life improvements, such as the pool upgrade, new pickleball and tennis courts, and planned improvements to the city’s auditorium. These plans include new windows, a new boiler and HVAC system. The city encourages residents to build sidewalks or improve existing sidewalks.
“All those quality of life things where people are happy and alive,” she said. “We have a great workforce. The school district does an excellent job of preparing students whether they stay in Caledonia or not. The students at Caledonia are excellent.”
She also noted that the district’s recent partnerships with Bluff Country Collaborative and CEDA (Community and Economic Development Associates) have provided opportunities for career exploration.
Some of the concerns Caledonia needs to address include the lack of motorway companies, the occupation of vacant downtown buildings and the need for larger employers.
Of the two most notable survey results, the primary need was to fill vacant downtown buildings. That feat would require improving the appearance of buildings and making them commercially viable, Swann said. A combination of that and a low-interest loan from the city could be tempting for a new business.
The city received an $824,698 Small Cities Development Program grant from the state of Minnesota in June 2018, though the money wasn’t available until late 2018/early 2019, Swann said. In addition, Covid-19 caused delays and challenges in 2020 and 2021.
The results of this grant can be viewed at The Caledonia Bakery, Klug Insurance, Mell Chiropractic, Thrivent Financial and Buckboard.
The city and EDA can also work with companies to create low-interest loan programs that are also forgivable. What has helped the FDFA the most is setting up its own special revenue fund. The EDA now has the opportunity to retain and build up its own funding. It is a line item of tax collection and allows for a dedicated resource for economic development. The goal is for the EDA to save money and take on larger projects in the future, Swann said.
“Improving the appearance and repairing our buildings is a big focus for us,” Swann said. He added that the road construction project at South Marshall and East Grove streets will improve that neighborhood. He hopes the city will add decorative lighting to make the area more welcoming.
The second challenge is finding larger employers like Miken Sports to move to the city. As of now, Miken plans to move production to Missouri and China. After the news broke, Swann said the city has received a “good number” of calls inside and outside of Minnesota from companies considering relocating to the space.
A third challenge for Caledonia is space, as there isn’t much land available in the city at a price that some of these companies are seeking, Swann said.
“If you can find the space available, you still need to have enough manpower to support this business,” he said. “Even if the city attracts another 100-200 person businesses, we need enough people to work there. I don’t know if that exists.”
The city is also tackling the housing shortage. The Doering Estates development of Caledonia High School with lots available. Some property owners also have the option to subdivide their property and increase the property density. Once that development is complete, the city will likely push harder for subdivision, Swann said.
A challenge many businesses across the country are facing is staffing and supply shortages during and after Covid-19.
Caledonia has not issued any rules on what companies should or should not do during the lockdown period. They’ve given businesses a large chunk of CARES Act funding, trying to help businesses make their decisions, and have given temporary alcohol licensing relief for 2020, Swann summarized.
“Covid has presented companies with many challenges. They all suffered from lost business and changing mandates,” he said. “It’s been a struggle for them, even if the business environment hasn’t changed. For companies that had renovation projects, the pandemic has put those plans on hold.”
Despite the chaos of 2020 and part of 2021, the good news is that most of these stalled projects are moving forward again. The city wasn’t immune to delays as it should have completed the Small Cities Development Program last year. The state has extended the deadline for this program.
And it keeps moving forward, especially when the city aims to be proactive, open-minded and as flexible as possible.
The Twin Cities Cycling Club contacted the city about hosting an omnium, or “a track cycling competition consisting of a series of competitions of different types.” Swann said other southeast Minnesota cities turned them down, but Caledonia accepted and the event is scheduled for April 30-May 1.
“The fact that the City and Council have been very supportive of this. We are open to new events and projects to promote the city and tourism,” said Swann.
Other events such as the joint film festival and founders’ day, as well as committees such as Community Spirit Caledonia, also bring the community together.