The city of Crystal Falls has seen better days, but Norm Mika is
part of a plan to help the city see better days ahead.
Tucked in Iron County just north of the border between the Upper
Peninsula (U.P.) of Michigan and Wisconsin, Crystal Falls' population
was at its height during the labor-intensive mining era in the U.P.
about 80 years ago, when the city was several times larger than
its current population of about 2,000.
"It's been a continual downslide since about 1920," Mika said,
adding that many U.P. communities are experiencing a similar fate.
"Most communities are not growing. They're just laying there."
The main street running through downtown Crystal Falls is one
mile long. Numerous storefront vacancies dot the city's signature
space like missing teeth, giving the city a "real detrimental look,"
Mika said. "At our population base, there's no way we can support
that kind of (building) infrastructure."
Mika hopes to spark a reversal. He applied for and received both
a federal grant and a state loan totaling a half-million dollars
to complete the infrastructure in a small, under-used industrial
park. Now he's busy looking for a business or three to bring good-paying
manufacturing jobs to the industrial park, which, in turn, would
bring "more spendable income" to the main street shops, Mika said.
Recently hired out of retirement to be the city's economic development
coordinator one day a week, Mika is a good example of the rising
interest and efforts of local communitiesincluding very small
cities like Crystal Fallsto promote economic development more
Throughout the Ninth District, an extensive network of public,
quasi-public and nonprofit organizations exists for the purpose
of promoting local economic development. These organizations help
local businesses expand or assist outside businesses with relocating
or expanding to their particular community. They depend heavily
onin many respects, they exist because ofa panorama
of business assistance tools and programs designed to make a company's
expansion or relocation quicker, easier and less expensive.
Most of the attention over economic development and business subsidies
focuses on large cities and their growing suburbs, and for good
reason. A handful of high-profile projects in the Twin CitiesTarget,
Lawson Software, Block E, the Minnesota Wild hockey teamare
each receiving tens of millions in subsidies from Minneapolis or
St. Paul. One well-to-do Twin Cities suburb entered 45 separate
agreements in just three yearsgood for $15 million worth in
assistance last year alone.
But often overlooked is the activity in smaller towns, where literally
hundreds of organizations make seemingly innocuous deals to help
companies grow in their community. Little is known about total expenditures
because such activity is not tracked very closely in most states.
Minnesota has one of the strictest reporting laws in the country
regarding business assistance, yet even this mechanism fails to
capture the true total spending on economic development and business
The information that is available, however, suggests it is substantial
and is not likely to ebb anytime soon. Communities increasingly
see business incentives as a way to influence and enhance local
economic activity. Given the widespread use of business incentives,
local practitioners say citiesespecially small ones with few
obvious business advantagescan ill afford not to offer such
subsidies if they hope to grow their local economy.