Guest Column: What the city is doing to turn numbers around
Guest Column by Jerry Gabrielatos
An article about Albert Lea, described by its author as “infotainment” circulated on social media earlier this week. Someone emailed me the article, which listed Albert Lea as one of the 10 worst places in Minnesota to live, and asked, “What are you going to do about it?”
I want to identify and discuss the statistics that I take seriously, not provide a point-by-point rebuttal to clickbait. The Census Bureau indicates that 16% of Albert Leans are in poverty. And according to our own Community Survey data from 2018, 30% and 31% of respondents positively rate the city’s overall economic health and employment opportunities, respectively. Only 34% gave a thumbs up to the housing options available in the city. So what are we doing to turn those numbers around?
We developed an economic development plan. For the first time during my nearly five years in Albert Lea, the city, county, CVB, chamber and ALEDA are all on the same page with a strategic plan that clearly defines roles and responsibilities for each organization. This plan is available on ALEDA’s website and will be the subject of a community meeting next week. I encourage residents and business owners to use this plan to keep us accountable.
Our team also has taken measures to improve quality of life and business conditions in Albert Lea. Staff from the city, county and ALEDA have also been working to address the child care shortage in Albert Lea. Not long ago, we secured a grant from Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation to provide seed funding for five new home child care providers. Our firefighters are now trained to perform inspections, at no cost, for child care facilities, reducing wait time and expenses to expedite the opening of these sorely needed businesses.
We’re working hard to create a positive economic climate. We have maintained budget stability while expanding the public works garage, building a fire station and replacing the airport arrival and departure building. Moreover, our city clerk and staff from the Development Services team (formerly Planning and Inspections) have been working to modernize our city code to make it simpler and easier to do business in Albert Lea. It is also worth noting that the city was just accepted into Main Street, a nationally recognized program, which will sustain the growth we’ve seen downtown.
I’m thrilled to be working with our HRA director, Jeanne Leick. How do I demonstrate how committed Jeanne is? Well, after sending her our housing study at 6 p.m. one night, I popped by her office the next morning at 8 a.m. and joked, “So did you finish the study?” She matter-of-factly responded, “No, but I’m on page 37.” That study indicated exactly what the aforementioned statistic did — our housing stock is not being replaced at an adequate level and the existing housing is in need of repair. To address this, Jeanne and I attended a housing conference a couple of weeks ago and are researching grant opportunities for which to apply. We also learned about low-interest loan programs available for residents right now that we will soon publicize.
I began my career in Albert Lea by going door-to-door, asking residents what the city could do to help. Housing, child care and an improved economy were the themes of those conversations. Five years later, I feel like we have made progress, but know that there is more work to do. This column explains what we intend to do about it.
Jerry Gabrielatos is assistant Albert Lea city manager.