Koochiching economic development director takes shotgun approach

INTERNATIONAL FALLS, Minn. – It was a sunny September day outside, but only 1o degrees inside the cold weather testing box near the airport here. The box, a giant walk-in freezer that accommodates nine cars and can sustain a temperature of 40 below, was running because a truck and bus manufacturer from Chicago was due to arrive to test auto parts against the frigid cold.

Rethinking a Company Town

Cold weather testing is big business in International Falls, drawing between $150,000 and $200,000 annually to a city that has a love/hate relationship with its reputation as the ice box of the nation. “It’s booked through March,” said Koochiching Economic Development Authority Director Paul Nevanen, who oversees the facility, including a second box built last year to accommodate new client UK-based Jaguar Land Rover.

Nevanen remembers unveiling for the Brits the new testing box, which Koochiching County and International Falls built jointly. He’d hired a group of bagpipe players from Ontario, across the Rainy River, to play Rule, Britannia. “They loved it,” he said with a low-key smile.

This kind of welcoming touch is signature Nevanen and also what he says sets his city apart from others. Have a good time, he said, but also, “Keep it simple and get the work done is our philosophy.”

Nevanen is an International Falls native who lived in the Twin Cities for years, working for various book sellers, before moving back with his wife, also from International Falls, in 1993. “We were coming home three weekends out of four,” said Nevanen, who has a giant map of Rainy Lake tacked to his office wall, the island where his in-laws have a cabin prominently marked. “We have a real commitment to this place. Five hours is nothing,” he said of the drive from the metro. “When you are from here, everything is a long drive.”

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The distance between International Falls, a small city on the Canadian border, and just about everywhere else is an issue Nevanen deals with daily in his position as economic director, which he’s held since 2001.

Nevanen has been working to diversify the job base in a city that has relied heavily on the Boise paper mill for more than 100 years. In October, the mill completed a round of layoffs that cost 265 jobs. It also just sold to Illinois-based Packaging Corporation of America. If the city finds success in developing new economic avenues, certainly Nevanen, a born connecter of people and ideas, will be a force behind it.

“We have to step back and be realistic about what can and cannot work here,” he said. “We have to consider location and distance from markets and transportation costs.” Those factors can make it hard to recruit manufacturers of physical products. On the upside, he said, “The reason we are all here is Rainy Lake and the lifestyle around the lake and the woods. People are drawn to that. It’s one of our greatest assets.”

“We’ve looked at things that are not as geography based, where our location is seen as strategic or doesn’t matter,” he said, mentioning data centers and call centers as examples.

Whether biomass, peat harvesting, manufacturing, small business development or plasma gasification of garbage, Nevanen and his office have tried to push many ideas forward. Some efforts have borne fruit and some haven’t. “We’re working every angle,” he said. “It’s a shotgun approach. No idea is too big or too small.”

One of the most confounding projects has been the city and county’s foreign trade zone, established in 2007 near a busy rail crossing into the U.S. from Canada. The goal is to recruit a company to build a facility there and hire people for light manufacturing or assembly of products on their way from British Columbia to Chicago. The foreign trade zone provides benefits, like a duty-free atmosphere. But so far, the zone remains an undeveloped field of rocks and wetlands.

“We are hoping to find someone importing to the U.S. where this location would be strategic,” said Nevanen standing on a rock in the foreign trade zone on a sunny afternoon. “It makes a lot of sense. But we haven’t been able to crack it yet. We’ve come at it any number of ways. I have talked to a lot of people about this. We continue to pursue it.”

In the end, Nevanen thinks the shotgun approach to economic development is the right one for International Falls and Koochiching County. “I hope it’s a combination of things,” he said. “We need to diversify beyond timber and tourism. We need to get a manufacturer into the trade zone. We have cheaper real estate and utilities than the larger cities. We have to make a strong business case. We have to have a compelling story line… It’s so loud out there with all the competition.”