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Mark Schill

‘No longer a narrative of decline’: Mark Schill of Praxis Strategy Group talks about the region's cities

Editor’s note: Mark Schill is vice president for research at Praxis Strategy Group in Grand Forks, N.D., a consulting firm that specializes in economic development. He’s also co-founder and managing editor of NewGeography.com, a population and economic analysis site.

Schill has close to 20 years of experience in economic analysis and demographic research, and has worked on development strategies for cities in 13 states.

In this Q&A, he talks about his work as well as the strengths and weaknesses of cities in our region.   

Q. Where are you from, and how did you get started with Praxis?

A. I'm originally from Grand Forks, and that's how I wound up here. I grew up here, went to high school here, went to college here at UND.

What happened is that I started to work with Delore Zimmerman, Praxis Strategy Group’s co-founder, in the late 1990s as I was finishing my business degree. I was doing an internship in Denver, and he had started another company that was moving to that area from Grand Forks.

I worked with him in Denver, came back here and worked with him again as I finished my degree, and I’ve been here ever since.

Q. Did you set out to be a consultant or planner?

A. Not at all. It's interesting, because working in economic development, strategic planning or policy research in general is not something you think about when you're in high school or college.

Instead, getting involved in a field like this is often just serendipity. You see an opportunity, and you work to develop it as well as acquire the necessary skills.

And I've been fortunate to get involved in this field as the internet became available, and information and data just became so became much more accessible.

As a result, today you can train yourself on virtually any skill that you need in terms of the work you do.

When it comes to careers, I've always thought, “Just get caught in the act of doing something.” Don't be afraid to experiment – to say yes to something, even if you may not have a clear road map of how to do it. You can't know until you try.

Q. How about NewGeography.com, which you help edit? How did that come about?

A. Basically, it was the same kind of thing. We started that with Joel Kotkin, whom Delore has known ever since the two of them were fellows for the Center for the New West in Denver in the 1990s. (Editor’s note: Kotkin is a California-based author who writes for a national audience about economic, demographic and social trends.)

At the time, Joel had a monthly column, and I got to know him through that connection; I did a lot of research for him. It slowly evolved until about 10 years ago. At the time, Joel was seeing the wholesale changes in the media industry as he knew it, especially the fragmentation and the downsizing.

And we thought, why not build our own platform?

So, the website was literally built in my basement. It was one of those things where we said, hey, we need to build this, we don't have a lot of money, so let's just try to do it ourselves.

And again, a lot of it is serendipity, with all of this happening at what proved to be the right time to get into a field like this.

We can be a firm like ours, we can work publishing a website with a partner in Los Angeles, and it's really not a problem. At Praxis, our largest clients for many years were in Washington, and here we are in Grand Forks – and it turns out that works just fine.

Q. You’ve done lots of consulting for cities around the region. What kinds of changes have you seen?

A. Economic development has really evolved from 30 or 40 years ago, when it was all about huge incentive programs. Today, economic development agencies are finding themselves as one of the few in the community whose mission is just general prosperity and economic well-being.

That means that these days, a big part of planning is to help strengthen the networks in a community, which ultimately strengthens trust. Because as communities and economies evolve, the strength of the economy comes more and more to depend on the strength of those networks.

What do you mean?

Think about Sioux Falls, S.D. Sioux Falls is one of the most interesting examples of urban success anywhere, because remember: in general, the small cities with a major university or a state Capitol or both have done very well. But Sioux Falls has neither of those.

If you look at it in that way, you see that there really is no concrete competitive advantage.

Instead, Sioux Falls is one of the best examples of a community that has succeeded because of its networks and its broad, sound fundamentals – good schools, good amenities and so on.

It's just a nice place to live. And over the past 15 years, it has really improved the quality of its arts and culture, the quality of its restaurants. It’ll never compete with a large metro area, but it's a lot closer than it once was.

That’s no accident.

Q. How so?

A. Because one of the biggest things we've seen is – and it goes back to that intangible sense of community – Sioux Falls does planning really well.

Every five to eight years, they renew their strategic plan and their sense of direction. Almost no other place does that; but in Sioux Falls, it’s part of their civic DNA.

This really hit me when we had a client one time that was investigating land prices in various industrial parks. And we found that when we started calling around Sioux Falls, no matter which community we called, they said, “Look, if you don't come to our town, come to the next town over. Come to the region.”

They had this sense of regionality and cooperation that was really impressive.

It's the will for everyone to work together for the benefit of making community investments. That's the difference. You always can come up with great ideas, but getting to the point where everyone's willing to support those investments and these projects – that’s the key.

Q. How about other cities and the examples they provide?

A. Whether it’s making investments in the Main Street Square in downtown Rapid City, S.D., or the Greenway in Grand Forks, successful communities are recognizing the value of amenities and of quality arts and culture.

Another great example is in Rochester, Minn.; the same thing has happened there.

In the early 2000s, downtown Rochester was fairly derelict. There wasn't a lot there other than a handful of small and long-established restaurants.

But even in the past five years, that has dramatically changed. Part of that is because of the concrete and massive investment of the Destination Medical Center strategy, but part of it also is fueled by the shift toward people recognizing the value of the local culture and local flavor.

Now, here’s an example from another direction: Duluth. Because when you compare Duluth’s economy with the economies of a Fargo or a Sioux Falls, you find that Duluth lags significantly on a lot of the core measures of economic growth.

But remember, Duluth is an entirely different economy; it's tied to the Great Lakes economy, not the Great Plains economy. So it's radically different – much more Rust Belt than Grain Belt.

Q. Would you say Duluth is a place with potential and great opportunities?

Absolutely, because it has unprecedented amenities. And it has colleges and universities, and to be frank, comparatively cheap housing.

That's part of what fueled Fargo's growth for so long, after all. Say what you will about the sprawl that it generated, but in Fargo, having relatively affordable housing along with job growth really mattered. If you can buy a home when you’re 25 years old, that really helps upward mobility as well.

Q. What role does Minneapolis play in all of this?

A. First, Minneapolis has been successful over the past three or four decades because of its role as a “sponge city.” It absorbs talent from all around our region – and its success has been based on the quality of people that we have.

Minneapolis benefited from soaking up a lot of those people.

But in the past decade or so, we've seen the small cities in the upper Great Plains become successful themselves, because the economic opportunities have evened out somewhat.

So, a place like Grand Forks now is essentially flat in terms of migration with the Twin Cities. It's not losing more people than it’s gaining.

And in fact, now we’re seeing people who are living in some of the suburban areas of  the larger metro areas, and they’re saying, “Wow. I can live in a Fargo, a Grand Forks or a Sioux Falls, and have a bit more balanced life with a low commuting time and high-quality education, as well as a more affordable place to live.”

In other words, one of the bigger threats to a city such as Minneapolis is the success of the smaller cities across the plains.

Q. It must be fun to watch and track all of these changes.

A. It is, and it’s great to watch how even the fundamental demographics of our region evolve.

North Dakota, for instance, now is in the top five youngest states, and that fundamental restructuring of the age demographics in this region is really important.

The net result is that our cities are in a “sweet spot” in many ways, including size. Besides their good schools and other amenities, they’ve got a critical mass of business people and others who can engage in ways that can get things done.

In short, these are well-run communities that are fundamentally sound, and that has dramatically changed the outlook for the region. It's no longer just a long-term narrative of decline.