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Economic Development Takes Sustained Attention

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Benson requires a focused and persistent economic development effort if it is to meet the challenges we face today and in the coming years.
Monthly meetings of an Economic Development Authority (EDA) with little real authority to pursue and act on opportunities won’t serve the best interests of the community and its citizens.
An EDA with enhanced responsibility working with Benson’s skilled economic development coordinator, Hillary Tweed, would make the city’s efforts more agile and position us better to take advantage of opportunities as they present themselves.
Over the past several months, Benson’s City Council and the EDA have been debating the limits of the economic development body’s authority. While the EDA is called an “authority,” its current scope of duties falls much more in line with a commission based on the enabling language the city adopted in 1990 when it created the EDA.
The EDA’s authority was limited when it was created because the city was unfamiliar with its workings and wanted to keep much of the authority for its activities and spending under its guidance.  It now has 34 years of experience with the EDA’s operation, which has shown itself capable of working out challenges while being fiscally responsible.
Benson’s EDA includes two members of the city council and five city residents appointed by the council. Mayor Jack Evenson serves as EDA chair with Council Member Dan Enderson also serving on the body. Citizen members are Pat Hawley, Dave Martin, Jon Buyck, Dr. Rick Horecka, and Rob Wolfington.
It has an economic development fund through which it can make loans of up to $100,000 before the city council has to also approve its actions. Its lending ability is also limited by the available funds in loan reserves, and it has no ability to increase them.
Currently, Benson contracts with Community and Economic Development Associates (CEDA) for its EDA administration with Tweed acting as its coordinator. CEDA, a non-profit economic development organization based in Chatfield in southeastern Minnesota, has become a specialist in community economic development serving dozens of communities.
Tweed is an employee of CEDA with the city contracting for her time. She has the resources of its specialists and other community economic development coordinators behind her and available for consulting.
CEDA’s new contract with the city for 2024 saw an increase in the hours it provides Benson from 40 to 48. That additional time includes hours for her assistant Laura Mitteness. Adding one more day to the contract was needed to “accommodate all the projects we have coming in,” Tweed told the council.
EDA Member and former long-time Benson City Manager Wolfington says it’s time for a change with the EDA having greater responsibility. It should have the ability to act like an authority rather than the limitations of a commission.
What is the difference between a commission and an authority?
An economic development commission: “…has limited, or no decision-making authority and is used as a sounding board or a first point of contact for the city council on development projects,” the 2024 Economic Development Handbook published by the Minnesota Economic Development Foundation says.
An authority, on the other hand, could be granted powers to:
- Oversee economic development districts
- Oversee redevelopment districts
- Acquire property
- Levy of taxes
- Issue loans
- Issue of bonds
- Conduct studies and commission research
- Accept public land
- Use eminent domain
- Sign contracts
- Enter into limited partnerships
Enhanced EDA authorities could be used to facilitate the next phase of the Cottage Square housing development in northeast Benson, or the south industrial park project the city has been studying for several years. “It could be a project that we haven’t even thought about yet that would be delegated by the council,” he told fellow EDA members last month.
One concern expressed by some council members is the possibility of giving the body limited taxing authority. The Swift County Rural Development Authority has had taxing authority for years, and Tweed said she has never heard any complaints about it. The RDA levy is $145,000.
While the RDA board can recommend a levy amount, it must be approved by the county board of commissioners. Any EDA proposed levy would also have to pass through the city council.
Tweed has said she would “love to see” the EDA have more responsibility.  There are cities much smaller than Benson where EDAs have greater authority with one successfully completing a housing project and others earning revenue.
Benson’s EDA plays a critical role in the city’s future. It will define the quality of life for its residents and the health of our business community. It will create opportunities for young people to return to the area for rewarding jobs and business opportunities. It’s not just another committee or commission.
It has been suggested that enhancing the mission of the EDA would add too much responsibility to a volunteer position that is sometimes filled by “retired guys” who aren’t looking for a lot of work to go with the seat. We would encourage anyone who wants less responsibility to look to another city board or commission – this one is too critical to our future. It should take greater commitment.
Further, the EDA has an economic development coordinator who will handle much of the heavy lifting for its efforts.
Council members come and go. City managers move on.  Both have many other areas of responsibility other than sustaining a focus on economic development efforts critical to the Benson area’s growth and prosperity.
Evenson, Enderson, Wolfington, and Tweed are now looking into the pros and cons of expanding the EDA’s role in economic development.
For Benson’s future, they should recommend expanding the EDA’s authorities. A board that meets monthly with its members having little responsibility lacks the sustained attention our economic development efforts demand.

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