North St. Paul council considers data-driven development

North St. Paul’s leaders are considering a $50,000 proposal to help them track what area residents eat, drink and buy and how they can use that information to attract and support retailers.

The North St. Paul City Council had its first glance at what a national data-gathering company can offer at a workshop Nov. 19. With better information on where residents and people from neighboring cities shop and find services, the city hopes to drive retailers and restaurants to pick the city as a development site. The Economic Development Authority will review the proposal in January.

“We can target who we’re going to go after, rather than a shotgun approach,” City Administrator Jason Ziemer said.

Developers want more information

A representative of Buxton, a company that purchases information and analyzes consumer patterns to help cities and organizations identify good fits for business development, presented its proposal at the workshop. Buxton offered a preliminary overview of the general population of about 100,000 people within a 10-minute drive time of North St. Paul.

Buxton vice president Lisa McCay offered examples from across the United States of cities similar to North St. Paul that used their services to lure national grocery stores, restaurants and coffee shops.

“They want the cold hard facts about how they are going to make money in this particular location,” said Paul Ammerman, the city’s Community Development Director. “That’s really the push behind it is more information.”

Most councilors said they were interested in the company’s approach to focused business recruitment, but remained cautious of the cost.

At least one workshop attendee said he was surprised at how much the company could glean from the around 75,000 tracked consumer variables, including purchasing patterns, occupations and commute times.

McCay noted several questions city leaders often ask: Who are we? How do we better understand that and who should we target? What kinds of businesses should we be reaching out to that represent our region?

“We empower our communities with answers,” McCay said.

What do current residents get?

The benefits of reeling in more businesses include improving sales tax revenue, boosting the quality of life and retaining businesses, according to the presentation.

Downtown could be appealing to niche boutiques or businesses that don’t require a lot of space, such as coffee shops or eateries, McCay said. It’s unlikely national clients would build in downtown North St. Paul, she said, because national retailers are often picky about site specifications and the drawing power of other businesses in the area.

“They like to be around each other because they all benefit from the foot traffic,” McCay said.

Council member Jan Walczak said she wondered if the city needs to make infrastructure improvements. She expressed some concern about the effect of new bigger businesses on the city’s existing businesses.

“This all sounds really great and I’m not against it and I love our little downtown, but do we need to be concerned about maybe having the street ready to accept something new?” she said at the workshop. “Do we need to do some investing in what we need to do to make the downtown a little more appealing?”

According to McCay and city staff, the answer isn’t completely clear, but knowing what North St. Paul is suitable for could help in planning infrastructure improvements.

Building momentum

With the recent Reflex molding company expansion and the planned Helen Street senior living complex, council member Terry Furlong said that downtown is building momentum.

“Now, it’s [about] identifying what will support that,” Furlong said.

Dave Szczepanski, an EDA member and president at Garry Insurancenter in North St. Paul, said he likes the idea of having facts to cite in economic development brainstorming sessions that otherwise might not be aligning the city’s needs with those of developers.

“It was never someone telling us some actual information,” he said.

Szczepanski said he was surprised at the scope of the data available to Buxton. “The world is spying on me more than I thought they were. It’s the kind of information that we need to have to make some real-world decisions.”

He added, “When this is all done, you can find out sometimes getting a no is better than getting a maybe.”

The councilors decided to have the EDA review the proposal, before returning it to the council for consideration.

Buxton’s involvement would cost $50,000 for the first year, and the same amount for each of the following two years.

McCay said Buxton can not only offer a long-term plan, it can provide information in a system that would be frequently updated.

Ziemer said it’s a relatively expensive proposition for the city, but it has the potential to pay off in the long run.

“There is a risk vs. reward,” Ziemer said.

Mayor Mike Kuehn said having data to support plans makes the proposal attractive, given the possible return on investment.

“I think it would make a lot of sense,” he said.

Kaitlyn Roby can be reached at kroby@lillienews.com or 651-748-7814. You can also find her on www.twitter.com  (@KRobyNews)

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