There are 853 cities in Minnesota and 833 of those cities are members of the League of Minnesota Cities. The 20 cities that are not members of the LMC are among the tiniest of incorporated cities in the state and struggle to even have an elected city council or mayor.

“The League” as most city officials call it, serves as a key information source for much of the information that cities need to serve their residents. It is also the source for the property casualty and liability insurance needs for most Minnesota cities and serves as an advocate for city-related issues at the state capitol. The issues the League is contacted about covers a wide variety of topics from assessments to zoning and everything in between.

The League is governed by a 19-member board of directors, made up of local elected and appointed officials from all corners of our state. Serving on the League board is always an interesting and engaging job and gives us each an appreciation about how much our Minnesota cities have in common and how unique each of the needs are.

All communities in Minnesota have many common interests including public safety with police and fire protection, property taxes, streets, parks, utility services, and a long list of other city services that city residents need and expect. But there are also some very marked differences in the needs of cites from the different areas of the state.

Metro cities certainly live in a different world than cities in Greater Minnesota. The cites on the Iron Range have different concerns and different funding mechanisms than the other cities in Greater Minnesota.

Those similarities and differences come into focus during discussions when the League board meets and especially when we talk about long term, big picture things. That happened last week when the League board held its annual retreat up in the far northern, picturesque city of Ely.

The list of challenges all cities face is long and discussion about them could go on for many days but this year our discussion focused on economic development, promoting civic engagement, encouraging people to serve on city councils and committees and housing challenges.

Taking time to look at long-term issues and needs of the future is always a good idea. Getting around the state is a good way to understand how issues affect communities and their residents and it’s always fun to see what is going on in the far corners of our state.

The long and enjoyable drive up to Ely underscores just how far-flung Minnesota is and how varied Minnesota’s geography and history is. Traveling through some of the forested areas north of Lake Superior where my dad, as a young guy, worked for the CCC and the U.S. Forest Service made the drive back all the more enjoyable.

We are fortunate to have such a diverse state. All corners of Minnesota present interesting twists and turns and make traveling the state worthwhile. 

One of the fun things about meeting with other city officials from around the state is comparing notes on how our communities handle issues and deal with challenges. This time housing seemed to be a topic that touched cities as different as Bemidji, Ely and Lakeville.

In each city, the need for housing is an issue that comes up in similar but various ways. Lakeville, a booming south metro suburb has, according to their city administrator, averaged more than 300 new single-family homes in each of the last five years. He said that amazing number would be a bit higher except for the fact that home building contractors are struggling to find dependable workers, which limits the number of new homes being built.

Lakeville, however, doesn’t have an issue that many older established Greater Minnesota and Metro area cities have; namely, the need to retire or re-purpose older, vacant or underused houses. My colleagues from Bemidji and Ely each say that, like in Granite Falls, they have houses that need attention or need to be retired and replaced. The market doesn’t respond to that need as it should and as a result, cities all around Minnesota are seeing an impact.

Here in Granite Falls we have approximately 1,300 single family homes, duplexes or apartments. If we assume that the average house or apartment lasts 100 years, simple math tells us that each year 13 houses or apartments should be retired and replaced with 13 new housing units. That clearly is not happening here and the same can be said in almost every city in Greater Minnesota as well as many of the Metro area cities.

That problem lacks an easy solution when new construction prices are high and going higher. We’re fortunate to have the new housing construction that the community does have, and it would be nice to have more. It’s also very good to see some older, underused or vacant houses being rescued, upgraded and reoccupied. In the last two or three years there have been several houses in Granite Falls that had been on the short list for demolition by the city be upgraded by a new owner. Avoiding the demolition cost and having those houses upgraded provides affordable housing for a home-buyer or a renter, preserves property tax base for the city, school district and county and helps to keep neighborhoods stable while preserving home value for those neighbors. It’s a win-win-win situation for everyone.

One issue that’s a challenge for all Minnesota cities, large or small, no matter where they are, is the cost of new subdivision development. Several city officials have remarked about utility and street construction prices rising faster than the cost of lots and, and the resulting assessments for those improvements running higher than the purchase price of the lot. We’ve just dealt with that here in Granite and it was interesting to hear that the same issue is happening all over the state. It always worthwhile to compare notes with others.