Polaris gets creative as housing, labor tighten in NW Minnesota

Construction of Parkland Place Apartments
The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development contributed $325,000 to the Parkland Place Apartments project.
Courtesy Todd Peterson / City of Roseau

Here's how hard it is to find workers and housing lately in northwest Minnesota: Polaris Industries is flying in workers from Mexico, bunking them in tiny Karlstad then busing them 80 miles daily to work at its Roseau plant.

A Monterrey-Karlstad-Roseau commute may seem extreme, but it's at least an answer to the skilled worker shortage that continues to frustrate Polaris and other businesses.

The snowmobile and ATV maker has struggled for months to hire for its Roseau operation 10 miles from the Canadian border. Polaris has seen sales grow at double digit rates for years and has enough work to add as many as 200 more permanent employees to its current payroll of about 1,600, according to Roseau's economic development administrator.

But a chronic housing shortage means there are more jobs available than homes for workers. This summer, Polaris was forced to pay to house workers, leasing a 10-bedroom former group home in Karlstad. The company brought in a dozen skilled workers from its Mexico factory on temporary work visas, according to Karlstad city clerk-treasurer Sue Dufault, who worked with Polaris to draw up the deal.

Polaris is working to replicate living arrangements on a much larger scale in Roseau. Parkland Place, a new 30-unit apartment building is going up. It's the first big housing venture in Roseau in a decade.

Polaris plant
Workers prepare engines for installation into Polaris' Ranger side-by-side vehicles at the company's plant in Roseau, Minn. on Wednesday, March 30, 2011.
Tom Robertson / MPR News, File

Developer Darrin Smedsmo got $325,000 in state funding and another $460,000 from the city to fund part of the project. The foundations are poured, the plumbing is in and the opening is set for some time next year.

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Polaris wants most or all of the apartments to house a second wave of workers from Monterrey, Smedsmo said. "We're in talks," Smedsmo said. "They want the space."

Smedsmo said bringing in more workers from Mexico isn't the only way Polaris is responding to labor shortages. He said the Twin Cities-based temporary labor contractor Strom Minnesota is supplying workers to Polaris and paying them a weekly stipend to stay in hotel rooms. Smedsmo, owner of the AmericInn in Roseau, said fellow hoteliers report similar bulk buys.

Polaris declined comment and Strom representatives did not return calls for comment. But Todd Peterson, Roseau's economic development administrator, confirmed that beginning earlier this summer, between 100 and 150 Strom workers came to town and are staying in motels.

The housing shortage, he added, is more than just a Polaris problem. The whole town is in a bind. A local Pizza Ranch restaurant closed down last week because the franchise owner couldn't find anyone to run the kitchen.

Marvin Windows, another large area employer, doesn't have a labor problem now but many of the company's roughly 2,000 employees are nearing retirement, and there aren't enough qualified workers in the area to replace them.

Peterson, who hustled to get the Parkland Place apartment project up and running, said he's looking to bring more housing to the city. Polaris officials, he added, would rather hire locals than bring in people from Strom or even their own workers from Mexico.

For now though, he said there aren't many options.