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Cass County considers workforce board to attract, retain workers

Group, allowed under state law, could be a partner and take a leadership role in helping with retention, recruiting

Career Workforce Academy drawing proposal.jpg
A drawing of the proposed Career Innovation Center southwest of Fargo.
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FARGO — Cass County will be studying the option to start a countywide Job Development Authority to help retain and attract workers.

At their May 16 meeting, Cass County Commissioners unanimously gave the go-ahead to County Administrator Robert Wilson to develop a process, timeline and estimate of expenses and staff support needed for such a group that could also be called a Workforce Advisory Board.

Commissioner Chad Peterson said he has been discussing the authority with Greater Fargo-Moorhead Economic Development Corporation CEO Joe Raso, and they viewed the organization as an opportunity to enhance and provide more structure to local economic development.

Peterson said it was discussed previously but stalled about two years ago when the county approved levying a mill of about $1 million each year for five years to help construct the Career Innovation Center, or workforce academy, in south Fargo to help students learn trades and skills needed for job openings in the county.

"Wherever we go, I think all we hear is workforce, workforce, workforce," he said. "And we hear the scream of, 'We need to do something.'"

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He suggested other organizations cannot boost the workforce on the scale needed, but a public authority could serve as "the tip of the spear."

Peterson said he recognizes that the Greater Fargo Moorhead Economic Development Corporation and Chamber of Commerce are working on workforce plans, but he foresees the authority as a group that could work with those local organizations in a leadership role.

State law allows cities and counties to form the authorities, and Casselton has done just that, State's Attorney Birch Burdick told the board.

That led Commissioner Mary Scherling to suggest that the Workforce Advisory Board could be set up under the city of Fargo.

Burdick said state law allows counties to levy up to 4 mills on property taxes for the operations of the authority with appointed members from throughout the county's towns and rural areas.

Peterson said he would be willing to work on the state level, too, to see if the state law dealing with the authorities needed to be adjusted.

Raso said they are working on a study due next month with the Chamber to get a better handle on workforce needs and next steps through a program called "Fueling Our Future."

As an example, he said, there are 4,800 job openings in this area that pay $70,000 or more, which equals about 22% of all openings.

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He also said there are 20,000 students in higher education in the area and asked if enough of those young people are being retained here. As another example of how operations are investing in workforce recruitment, he said, Sanford Health is spending millions on seeking employees.

Raso said he sees the county authority as a place where discussions could take place on a variety of these issues and as a "partnership" with the Economic Development Corporation and Chamber of Commerce.

Commission Chairman Rick Steen asked what would happen with the private investors who help support the Economic Development Corporation.

Raso said he didn't think it would have an effect, as they would continue their work. He said he views the authority as another tool to help with the workforce issues.

Peterson said he also views it as mechanism to help both the private and public sectors.

There was no timeline set on when the county would complete its research.

An almost 50-year veteran of the newspaper business, Amundson has worked for The Forum and Forum News Service for 15 years. He started as a sport reporter in Minnesota. He is currently the city and night reporter for The Forum. bamundson@forumcomm.com 701-451-5665
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