Action planning meeting focuses on growth of Merrill
As the city of Merrill prepares to develop its next five-year strategic plan, a group of Merrill officials and citizens met Thursday, Jan. 10, to review the current plan and set priorities for the future.
The current five-year plan, set in 2014, will expire this year. A new plan needs to be developed by July.
Part of the Building Merrill Together program series, Thursday night’s action planning meeting focused on economic growth of the community. The meeting built off two previous community focus groups and a public deliberation which produced four approaches to enhancing community and economic growth: preserving cultural heritage, promoting economic development, being open to new people and ideas, and discovering community identity.
Merrill City Administrator Dave Johnson went through the current five-year plan – the city’s first ever – and what has been accomplished. Johnson presented a long list of development, redevelopment and blight elimination projects completed over the past five years, along with an extensive list of infrastructure projects.
Johnson referred to the strategic plan as a “living document.” According to the plan’s summary, “It is not a panacea, and most important, it should be modified to reflect changing priorities and resources.”
A primary city function is to provide services that citizens can’t provide for themselves. Those services are funded through taxes, user fees and grants.
“The bottom line is they all cost money,” Johnson said. “We need to strive to spread our costs over the greatest number of payers, and we do that through economic development and growth.”
Tax Increment Districts are a tool the city has been using extensively to improve infrastructure and spark economic development. The city currently has 10 active TIDs. The value of the increment in those districts (tax money available for infrastructure and development incentives) has grown over the past five years from $9.8 million to $34.3 million.
TID #3, which includes the Pine Ridge area on Merrill’s east side, is the primary economic engine for the city, funding improvements not only within that TID but also in other TIDs designated as “blighted.” TID #3 is scheduled to close in 2026.
Tax money paid on new development inside the TID boundaries doesn’t hit the general tax roll until the TID expires, typically 20 years or more. Johnson said he would like to see more development outside the TIDs, which would immediately contribute to the general tax levy.
The McCoy John Deere development is an example of a project that is located outside the TID boundary, but was facilitated by $300,000 in TID funding that paid for a sanitary lift station.
Another city focus over the past eight years has been blight removal. Through those efforts, many buildings have been removed, renovated or replaced with new development.
Community growth can be fostered through incentives, amenities and services, Johnson said.
“We can’t force businesses to relocate here, we can’t force expansion or annexation,” he said. “What we can do is incentivize business to locate in Merrill, and offer amenities and services that will make people want to move here.”
Johnson acknowledged that Merrill isn’t likely to land big retailers, but can pursue niche businesses to locate here.
Effective marketing is a key to bringing Merrill to the forefront in the minds of potential developers and residents, Johnson added.
“We can do a better job of selling this community to the state, and nationally, and it needs to be a priority,” he said.
Participants were asked to prioritize action steps for the following issues:
•We need to project our cultural heritage, unique character and way of life.
•We need to put economic security first by attracting businesses and creating jobs.
•We must embrace change, affirm differences and engage young people.
•We need to find the right balance between good growth and staying a small town.
An Aware and Active Citizens Group, which meets four times a year, has been established in Merrill. Interest was solicited from attendees at last Thursday night’s session to serve on committee that would assist in the efforts toward economic growth. Those wishing to get involved in the process may contact John Greenwood at 715-218-0284 or firstname.lastname@example.org.