Council eliminates economic development director positionThe Newport City Council last month completed a language change in the city’s by-laws that puts future city administrators in charge of Newport’s Economic Development Authority.
By: Jon Avise, South Washington County Bulletin
The Newport City Council last month completed a language change in the city’s by-laws that puts future city administrators in charge of Newport’s Economic Development Authority.
With the departure of former economic development director Bart Fischer earlier this year and the search for a new full-time administrator ongoing, the Newport council’s move seemed the logical step to take.
But the rather humdrum council action did more than just revise a few sentences.
It was the first formal action by Newport officials to eliminate the economic development director position, reshaping — for now, at least — the workings of Newport City Hall.
Not filling the economic development position — one of five staff members at city hall — will save the city roughly $80,000 per year in tight economic times, officials say.
At a time of slashed state aid and painful budget cuts, that’s a welcome chunk of change in the coffers. When Newport’s saving that kind of money, does the city of 3,700 really need an economic development director?
“If we were in a booming economy that might be the case,” city councilman Tom Ingemann said. “But we’re not.”
But one council member believes that’s a short-term gain that will be outweighed by the longer-term pain of not employing a city economic development official.
Fischer was hired in 2003 as Newport began to deal with the brunt of Interstate 494 and Wakota Bridge construction. The intention, former and current city officials said recently, was to prepare Newport to hit the ground running when construction was finally completed.
After seemingly endless delays, construction still hasn’t ended and Newport’s commercial rebirth has stalled as timid developers have shied away from the construction-sapped city.
But city council member Pauline Schottmuller said that’s exactly why Newport needs to replace Fischer, who left the city in January for another administrative position in Chaska.
With the final span of the Wakota Bridge set to open in summer 2010, Newport needs to be prepared, she says, to woo developers as the ribbon is being cut.
“The construction will end, the recession will end,” Schottmuller said, “and Newport is not as well positioned to take advantage of development opportunities because we don’t have an economic development officer.”
Newport received a boost in Local Government Aid from the state during construction, in part to help pay the salary of an economic development director. Schottmuller said not continuing to use that extra aid to remunerate an economic development official is irresponsible.
“We have weakened our argument with the Legislature about why we need that extra money,” she said.
Mayor Tim Geraghty said that when Fischer was hired, employing an economic development director made sense. At the time, Newport’s focus needed to be on coming out of the bridge and highway construction ready to redevelop, he said.
Now, it’s a different story — state aid cuts loom and the city’s already small budget has tightened.
Plus, Geraghty said, he believes the city’s yet-to-be hired city administrator could handle the responsibilities of an economic development director.
The position should be eliminated “permanently, that’s my feeling,” Geraghty said.
Schottmuller says that’s what worries her about not filling the economic development director’s role now — she said the position was eliminated for political reasons and she’s concerned it will become a permanent change.
“Do we need one? Yes. We need one now,” she said. It is unrealistic “to say, ‘Maybe a year from now (the position) will come back.’ Newport needs to be marketing itself every day. We can’t wait for the redevelopment of Newport for a year or two.”
But while Ingemann agrees with the decision to not hire a new economic development director immediately, he said he doesn’t believe the position is gone forever.
“It’s just right now we can’t afford one,” he said. “If we had businesses that were just knocking down our door and screaming down the highway it’d be different.”