City leaders convened to listen to experts offer an outsider's view and advice on how Farmington can move forward in terms of creating competitive economic development.

City staff and government leaders attended the Urban Land Institute Minnesota workshop on Nov. 13. The information will be used by city planners creating and revising the 2040 Comp Plan. The plan addresses all areas of future development in terms of parks, open land, economic redevelopment, housing, transportation and a plan to attract commercial and industrial companies and jobs to town.

The work session was attended by Farmington City Council, Farmington Economic Development Authority and Farmington Planning Commission. The panel style workshop "Navigating Your Competitive Future" was facilitated by Gordon Hughes and Cathy Bennett of ULI Minnesota and others on the panel.

"Successful communities develop a clear vision, react appropriately to opportunities, create innovative financial tools to leverage their key assets," said Hughes, a facilitator with Urban Land Institute Minnesota workshop.

Leverage assets

Farmington should leverage its strengths and assets, Hughes said, and that includes possessing an authentic downtown and how the city has abundant land resources.

"These assets position the city as a competitive place for future development when the market is ready," he added.

Touting more assets, he said the city's website is easily accessible as it highlights important city information and connects potential developers with the right people at City Hall.

"The 30-day review timeline for project consideration is a huge selling point for developers who are used to a much longer schedule," Hughes said.

Downtown key

Farmington's downtown is an important asset and can be key to the city's future success. A big advantage for Farmington is the intact, authentic downtown.

"Such downtowns are yearned for by many cities, which attempt to replicate them with varying degrees of success," Hughes said.

Cities like Farmington with successful downtown strategies need to develop a clear understanding of the downtown inventory. The cities need to identify "catalyst sites" to leverage further development opportunities that can be strategic with investments and can maximize their return to the city, Hughes said.

Some existing Farmington downtown buildings like the historic Exchange Bank building located on the corner of Third and Oak streets could become transformational properties to spark reinvestment in downtown, the panel agreed.

The downtown could be improved upon by creating better connections to the rest of the community. For example, there could be better signage, landscaping and improvements to the trail and sidewalk system along Akin Road. This signage could enhance connections to the rest of Farmington.

"The county fair is one of the largest in Minnesota and provides an opportunity to connect fairgoers with downtown," Hughes said.

Investing in downtown housing could provide an important component for downtown vitality because Generation Y and Baby Boomers are attracted to authentic downtown environments that offer unique dining venues and affordable housing opportunities.

"Creating a greater residential density in close proximity to downtown benefits retailers and service providers and may be a counter punch to traditional single family neighborhoods in the northwest part of the city," Hughes said.

Panel members talked about how Farmington has 172 commercial properties that comprise of 2.3 million square feet. Sixty percent is industrial, 30 percent retail. There is little office space, Hughes said.

"The vacancy rate is very low at 2 percent which could be catalyst for new development," he added.

Office and industrial development generally follow transportation corridors and the availability of a labor pool.

"Farmington does not enjoy the same perception of accessibility as other cities along major highway corridors, and this will likely limit the amount and type of office and industrial development that requires better access and higher densities of nearby labor pools," Hughes said.

A recent ULI Minnesota housing forum reported how the lack of close and affordable housing is affecting business growth. Two businesses like Shutterfly and Fed-Ex usually make location decisions based on close and affordable housing.

Housing, jobs link

The panel stressed the importance of links between housing and jobs.

"Walkability and connectivity between housing, employment centers and natural amenities along safe and interesting routes are desired not only by the Next Generation but by older residents and workers," Hughes said.

Because the younger generations will be hampered by unstable jobs, large student debt and less certainty about their personal futures, Hughes said rental housing opportunities may be more desirable than ownership.

"Affordable rental options provide an opportunity to "try out" a community prior to making the transition to home ownership, and with Farmington's first time buyer market, the city is in a good position to retain these renters as owners in the future," Hughes said.

The panel suggested Farmington invest in mixed income housing to attract a new workforce housing with modern amenities.

"Today's mixed income housing products are far different from yesterday's low-income housing, and cities that welcome such developments are pleased with the results," Hughes said.

Successful cities

The urban planning experts offered suggestions to city staff and leadership about visioning and setting goals.

Successful cities establish priorities and communicate them to the development community.

It is important to continue and communicate to the development community how Farmington's open for business and reinforce the city's commitment to downtown Farmington, while working on connections to town and from other parts of the city.

"Sometimes cities try to do too many things and accomplish none of them," Hughes said. Successful cities focus on projects that can be transformational and provide the largest return on investment.

"Successful cities understand reality and are not afraid to dream big and are flexible to find ways to accomplish the bigger picture rather than simply enforcing the letter of the law, and for the city to align available resources and communicate them effectively to the redevelopment community," Hughes said.