Success Story: Co-ops Build Community
22 Jan 2018
"If communities are strong and vibrant, our service territory grows, the co-op benefits from that. If communities are dying or not doing well, we’re not doing well. There’s an alignment of interests there that we need to help grow our region."
Up until about 75 years ago, the majority of rural areas of the United States were literally in the dark because big power companies didn't think it was worthwhile to expend the resources to develop infrastructure to allow farmers and ranchers to tap into the electric grid.
People in rural areas banded together to establish electrical cooperatives to address their need for power. Today electric cooperatives distribute power for 75 percent of the U.S. land mass over 2.4 million miles of power lines. Unlike investor-owned utilities, they are consumer-owned and driven by a set of cooperative principles. One of these core values is: commitment to community.
For 80 years, Stearns Electric Association has provided electricity and related products and services to Central Minnesota. The co-op serves nearly 27,000 members in six central Minnesota counties.
Commitment to community is evident in its operations. CEO Dave Gruenes explains that the co-op and the communities it serves have a symbiotic relationship.
“If communities are strong and vibrant, our service territory grows, the co-op benefits from that. If communities are dying or not doing well, we’re not doing well. There’s an alignment of interests there that we need to help grow our region,” he said.
In the 1990s, Stearns Electric began a partnership with St. Cloud Opportunities, a local economic development nonprofit whose mission is to purchase and develop industrial property in St. Cloud to attract businesses and employment opportunities.
Stearns Electric, St. Cloud Opportunities and the city of St. Cloud worked together to purchase property and create the I-94 Business Park. The 500-acre, publicly owned industrial park is adjacent to Interstate 94 in St. Cloud and Stearns County.
The park currently hosts six companies. Additional land is available for sale and further development is possible. Of the available land in the park, two sites totaling over 100 acres have gone through Great River Energy’s data center site assessment program and are considered well-suited for data center development.
Incentives are available. Some of the businesses in the park have received assistance through the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development and local incentives through the city. Stearns Electric has worked with companies in the park on utility and conservation measures. Incentives are available for those that build with energy efficiency in mind.
Loans are also available. GoldLeaf Plastics was able to purchase needed equipment after receiving a loan from Great River Energy and Stearns Electric.
In addition, the area has access to a wealth of training resources that are attractive to businesses, through institutions of higher learning such as St. Cloud Technical and Community College and St. Cloud State University.
Gruenes said the companies in the I-94 Park have many spinoff benefits. There are currently 1,430 people employed by the businesses. The ripple effects this creates in the community are significant.
“It's wonderful for the region because employees are buying homes and raising families in the area,” Gruenes said.
The park tenants also provide tax revenue for the city of St. Cloud. They not only do business with other companies and vendors in the area, they also sell products outside the region. Investing in this development has returned dividends to the community and will continue to do so for years to come.