About 800 leaders from government agencies, private companies, non-profits, and labor groups met Tuesday to brainstorm about how to rev up Minnesota's job creation engine.
The summit convened by Gov. Mark Dayton touched on a range of issues, including tight credit and worker skills.
The summit was a peculiar combination of cheerleading, handwringing, and skepticism about the utility of its own purpose.
The summit began with discussion on the qualities of Minnesota — home to nearly 20 fortune 500 companies, and relative prosperity measured by income per person.
But the tone grew more serious as the governor recited a litany of more recent problems in Minnesota's economy.
"This past decade marks a profound change for this country and the state," Dayton said. "Minnesota's per capita income ranking has slipped from from 7th-highest in 2002 to 13th-highest in 2010."
Manufacturing jobs have left the state and gone overseas, Dayton said, and aren't coming back.
The state economist has pointed out that Minnesota has only recovered one-third of the jobs it lost during the Great Recession.
The administration is limited in what it can do to tackle those problems. Several of Minnesota's top economists and even the governor said that state government cannot create private sector jobs.
Even so, some participants reported seeing a consensus on ways the public and private sectors can collaborate to promote job growth.
In a panel discussion on that topic, Mark Ronnei, general manager of Grand View Lodge in the Brainerd Lakes area, found productive conversation, particularly in regards to regulation by the Health Department and Pollution Control Agency.
"The health department regulators — they need to become the partners and educators, as opposed to just the enforcers," Ronnei said. "And I think they're committed to it. I think that could be a good deal.
Dayton signed an executive order early in his tenure streamlining the PCA and Department of Natural Resources permitting process.
Will actions like the ones discussed at the summit result in immediate jobs? Ronnei says the jury is out.
"Every part of me says 'skeptical.' But Gov. Dayton is so committed to this and he's got his staff so committed," Ronnei said. "Every work culture like this that needs a change, needs a first step. Maybe this is one of their first steps."
But one panelist, Neal Crocker is president of Schaefer Ventilation Equipment in Sauk Rapids, questioned if the summit's goals were clear enough. He said the breakout session topics, which included improving access to capital, lowering taxes and aligning training with the jobs of the future, were all the right issues to address.
"The problem is what will happen today, probably, is that there will be 100 or 200 or 300 proposals, which is a laundry list, not a plan," he said.
That concern seemed to resonate with Dayton, who later repeated some of Crocker's points.
"We need an action plan. We expect a list of many good ideas, but we really need to decide what are our priorities," Dayton said. "Where do we think we can have the maximum effectiveness and short term, immediate benefit to get people back to work in this state, as well as that sense of what is our comparative advantage — what is going to make a difference in the long run for us?"
If Dayton's goal is to achieve that long-term comparative advantage, economist Art Rolnick questions some of the governor's action plan. Rolnick, who didn't attend the summit, said the issue of the Minnesota Vikings stadium was the elephant in the room.
"I think it's ironic that the governor is looking for long term job creation, ways to make sure there's long-term economic growth, and all that," Rolnick said. "And he's going to spend $650 million on a stadium?"
If he had that much money, Rolnick said he would use it to fund scholarships for low-income pre-schoolers — an act he said would have much more economic value for the state.
The governor's office said the stadium project would not use general fund dollars nor would it compete with education funding, which is a big priority. The administration pointed out the was not an agenda item at the summit.