Making Public Infrastructure a Catalyst for Economic Development and Community Prosperity

Making Public Infrastructure a Catalyst for Economic Development and Community Prosperity

February 6, 2024

By Jay Kennedy, Vice President, WSB

In the vast landscape of economic development, one key piece often remains hidden in plain sight: infrastructure. It’s not just about building roads and bridges; it’s about constructing the foundation for thriving communities and enticing businesses to bring jobs and investment.

Communities that invest in infrastructure with an eye to the future ensure they are the place that people and businesses want to be. Infrastructure is the lifeline that sustains economic progress. From utilities to public transportation to drinking water facilities, when these essential components are robust, designed with intention to the future and well-maintained, they create a fertile ground for businesses and communities to thrive.

Communicating with Businesses & Planning for the Future

The ‘build it and they will come’ approach, although powerful, isn’t the sole ingredient for sustainable growth. Communities need to actively engage with businesses and create an environment that welcomes investment.

Businesses looking for a community in which to invest can bring millions, sometimes even billions of dollars with them. Effective communication between communities and businesses is critical when it comes to infrastructure development. When local leaders say, “we are open for business,” they need the infrastructure and planning to back it up. 

When communities have plans that account for future development, population growth and supporting infrastructure, businesses can see a vision of why they should place their investment in that community.  

Relieving Infrastructure Stress & New Opportunities

There are also situations where upgrades and redesign can alleviate pressure on existing infrastructure and open new opportunities. Improving efficiency in public transportation and redirecting traffic from small community roads to major roadways, for example, can benefit both residents and local businesses. What starts off as one project opens the door for developers wanting to be a part of an up-and-coming area.

As infrastructure pressure is relieved and economic growth continues, it is critical to have a dedicated team that can manage an expanding community. It sends the message that the community is dedicated to growth, attracting even more investment.   

The Ideal Community: Balancing Residential and Commercial Zones

An ideal community strikes a balance between residential and commercial land uses, as well as public spaces. People prefer to live close to work and amenities. A blend of both residential and commercial spaces not only enhances convenience for residents but also attracts businesses looking for a customer base and workforce in proximity.

Collaborating Across the State and Region

Cities looking at their long-term community plans must ensure they also align with county-level planning and broader regional plans. Cooperation and coordination among various levels of government means that an infrastructure project is not operating in a silo, but instead part of a larger plan to drive people and businesses to the region.

How WSB Can Help

In Texas and beyond, the success of public infrastructure projects and planning is driving economic development. WSB is playing a pivotal role in communities throughout Texas, where expertise in smart infrastructure planning and execution has significantly reduced stress on resources while actively attracting businesses to the area.

WSB’s team can help with everything from community planning to public engagement to designing major infrastructure projects and more. We can help your community find ways to bolster economic growth and build infrastructure that fosters the long-term success of your community and region. 

Jay is a Vice President leading Texas operations. He has over 30 years of experience overseeing the management, planning, coordination, design and construction of municipal and civil engineering projects. He works with staff and clients seeking new business opportunities and developing local staff.

[email protected] | 512.518.1819

Tips to Help Small Cities Secure Funding

January 15, 2024
By Nate Sparks, Sr Community Planner, WSB

From new housing to industrial park expansions, building projects of various shapes and sizes provide meaningful investments in communities but need adequate funding to move forward. Especially for smaller and rural cities where budgets and resources are often not as big as their more urban counterparts, having a proper plan in place to receive needed funding is critical. Without a vision, local leaders may find themselves chasing results and finding few.

It can become too easy to view funding applications and grants as a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but without a plan in place, applicants may not only miss out on funding in competitive grant processes, but also miss funding opportunities that will best serve a particular project or goal.

With all this in mind, here are some ways small cities can give themselves an advantage when attempting to find funding for important projects.

Starting with What’s In Your Control

Before seeking external grants, it’s important to start by exploring the tools currently at your disposal. Tax abatement and tax increment financing (TIF) are two methods that cities can use to help push past hurdles and ensure priority projects have adequate funding. Many cities also explore fee waivers and reductions to help make projects more affordable and attainable.  These methods are within your control and may provide enough of a spark to get a project started. Redevelopment and Housing TIF Districts have 25-year durations which can capture a significant amount of revenue.

When outside funding is being pursued, it’s important to accurately consider the requirements of a grant to ensure that your community can meet the minimum requirements and provide a compelling narrative for qualification.

For example, the Innovative Business Development Public Infrastructure (BDPI) grants require the applicant to pay 50% of the cost, so it’s important if a community is pursuing a grant that they are sure that any matching dollars can be met. Other grants may require the applicant to have a specific demographic makeup or to pay all workers involved in the project a certain wage. Smaller cities need to show caution and ensure they are pursuing the best funding sources for them, otherwise certain grants may become more of a financial burden than a smart investment.

Communicating a Clear Need

When seeking external funding, communities need a strategy to set themselves apart from other cities. Be able to articulate why a grant is being sought and why there is a need. Are you cleaning up and repurposing a brownfield? Are you expanding housing to meet a demand for workforce housing? Are you expanding an industrial park to meet a growth in population and to bring in more jobs? Are you in need of a new playground for the influx of younger residents in your community? Applicants need to understand and be able to communicate not only what the project is, but the value it brings to the community. 

Being able to demonstrate in your adopted community plans that what you are seeking is clearly meeting a goal of the city is an ideal and successful strategy. Therefore, it is important to ensure that your planning documents are up to date and reflect the current reality of the community. Having a handle on the community’s context and demographic factors are excellent ways to help demonstrate need and qualifications. These documents also help people from outside your community understand the importance of projects to your community.

Harnessing Regional Collaboration

No community, regardless of size, operates in a silo. Collaborating with surrounding communities, counties or other regional entities can be a great way to not only better your chances of receiving funding but increase the types of grants you can apply for. Grant applications at the county level, for example, can create a mass of multiple groups and voices and needs that can go a long way to help as it expresses a regional demand.

Being in communication with regional partners about your demonstrated needs will alert them to opportunities for collaboration.  Recently, a new playground in a low- to moderate-income city received the necessary funding to be built in part because the county was aware of the city’s goals. Grant funds were available to the county, which then contacted the city about the opportunity. WSB provided the knowledge and technical skill to help produce the plan, identify grants provided by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) where applicable and worked through the application process to make sure the city received the needed funding.

How WSB Can Help

WSB helps cities of all sizes through a comprehensive planning and visioning process which includes identifying priorities, providing demographic data, navigating TIF requirements, bringing in potential developer partners and even writing grant applications.

Whether for revitalizing downtown, constructing housing, expanding industrial parks, building a playground or any other project, WSB can work with cities from start to finish.

Nate has been a community development professional for over 20 years. He has worked with a wide variety of communities providing guidance to municipalities of various sizes and types on a broad array of topics. He has significant experience working in townships and smaller cities which often face unique issues. His work includes writing comprehensive plans and zoning ordinances for several area communities, as well as serving the community point person for planning and zoning issues for 10 area cities and townships.

[email protected] | 952.221.0540

How Leaders are Getting Smart About Community Development

August 14, 2023
By Kim Lindquist, Director of Community Planning and Economic Development, WSB

Thoughtful, comprehensive and smart community development takes planning. Communities need to be socially and economically resilient, as well as attract and advance projects that benefit residents, local businesses, and the community as a whole.

Data and technology are key to twenty-first century community development, and adapting to and adopting smart strategies and tools can help give communities the edge in building the city of tomorrow.

Here are some ways that cities are getting smart about community development.

Smart tools better promote cities and project opportunities to developers.

City leaders know that their community is the best place to live, work, and grow a business. But how is that easily communicated to the right audiences to attract development and investment? That is where smart tools come into play.

More than ever before, people expect to have information at their fingertips. For local leaders, that means ensuring that the community’s online presence is accessible and does a good job telling the story about why your community matters.

This also means having a place where developers can easily find what parcels of land are ready and available for development. Critical data for developer decision-making includes not only spaces that appear “shovel-ready,” but also what transportation systems are near a property, what utilities serve the area, and more.

Some utilities like Xcel Energy and the State of Minnesota allow developers to search their databases online to find development property that meets their individual needs. Being aware of, and partnering with these services, can also ensure cities are promoting what is available and ready for investment.

Use data to make communities more resilient.

Resiliency is key to community development, and a vital part of resiliency is having a diversified tax base with a good mix of residential, commercial, and industrial properties. This is also important to help communities withstand economic downturns.

When crafting comprehensive plans, building strategies to attract new development, and planning for growth, data is more important than ever. Most cities have a trove of data available and using that information in smart ways to guide decision-making helps ensure community durability and resiliency.   

Smart cities empower residents to engage and make communities more accessible.

Whether it’s a resident easily pulling up data on zoning and permitting to build a deck extension on their home or participating in public meetings on a community’s comprehensive plan, technology is making it easier for residents to engage with and be invested in the future of their city.

As cities plan new neighborhoods or projects for example, they can foster community buy-in by using virtual tools to illustrate what a completed project will look like. Advances in surveying and mapping also allow for more instantaneous engagement and better demonstrate to residents and developers where there are meaningful opportunities for growth.

Smart cities meet people where they are, and technology makes information easily available and accessible.

How WSB Can Help

WSB’s team of experts help local leaders with community planning, zoning applications, permitting, developing and executing comprehensive plans, and ensuring community resiliency. We work with cities every day to build smart tools and tactics into their community development strategies. 

Kim is a planning professional with over 30 years of experience overseeing a variety of complex planning projects. She has worked in high growth communities with developers and the public on entitlements for residential development and attracting business to the city.

[email protected] | 763.287.8303

Kim Lindquist

How Communities Can Prepare for Minnesota’s New Native Landscaping Law

August 14, 2023
By Alison Harwood, Director of Natural Resources, Kim Lindquist, Director of Community Planning & Economic Development and Jason Amberg, Director of Landscape Architecture, WSB

Native landscaping is growing in popularity, from pollinator-friendly plants and prairie grasses to rain gardens. Now the state of Minnesota passed a new law, effective July 1 of this year, that requires municipalities to allow property owners and occupants to install and maintain managed natural landscapes.

What are the pros and cons of this new law, and what does it mean for cities? Here are some things to consider.

What are the benefits of native landscaping?

Native landscaping covers a spectrum of options that includes a variety of landscaping. This could mean including only plant materials that grow naturally within the region to combinations that blend some areas of native plantings with some areas of manicured lawns or ornamental landscapes. Introducing native plant communities can provide critical resources for pollinators and provide a place for certain species to hibernate in winter. Rain gardens can help manage stormwater run off and reduce chemical runoff.

In addition to the natural benefits, there are economic benefits as well. Native landscaping reduces the need for irrigation and watering as plants are often more drought resistant. There are also cost savings from reduced fertilizer and chemical usage, as well as reduced maintenance costs.

How are native landscapes maintained?

The new Minnesota statute clearly states that native landscapes must be well-maintained, but what does that mean? In the statute, managed natural landscape is defined as a planned, intentional, and maintained planting of native or nonnative grasses, wildflowers, forbs, ferns, shrubs or trees, including but not limited to rain gardens, meadow vegetation and ornamental plants.

When thinking about a traditional manicured lawn, maintenance includes regular mowing throughout the spring and summer, regular watering when it gets dry and the application of fertilizers and herbicides. Then in fall, landscapes are often cleaned to remove dead plants and leaf litter.

For native landscapes, however, there is far less maintenance and plants often grow quite tall. In fact, the new law allows native grasses to grow taller than 8 inches high. Plus, as the weather turns cold, it’s better to leave the lawn and dead vegetation in place, providing quality habitat for wintering animals and insects.

What does this ordinance mean for local governments across Minnesota?

While many cities have adopted ordinances in the past decade allowing native landscaping, many others have ordinances prohibiting native landscaping or yards to have grass taller than 8 inches. This new state law supersedes local law, and it is important that communities update ordinances to comply with state statute.

Moreover, ordinance changes often take at least 60-90 days, so it’s important to act before next spring when many residents will begin lawn maintenance and planting. This ensures residents have a clear direction from the city.

Managing Public Engagement and Education

With this new law, there are a few issues local communities must navigate to ensure residents feel heard and legal requirements are made clear.

For residents concerned about unkempt lawns or who prefer neighborhoods to have a more manicured look, it’s important to communicate the benefits of native landscaping for the community and residents. Moreover, residents should be educated that while native grass and plants can grow taller than 8 inches, traditional manicured lawns cannot. And whether having natural landscaping or manicured lawns, noxious weeds are not allowed by this law change. Cities can and will still be enforcing unkempt lawns that do not meet state and local law requirements.

Educational community meetings, handouts, guidance on websites, and social media campaigns are all ways that cities can effectively communicate with residents about the new native landscaping laws.

How WSB Can Help

If you’re a city leader who needs help navigating ordinance changes around this new statute, WSB’s team can help.

Our landscaping team can also help clients design and build native landscaping into their public or private spaces, offering solutions that are aesthetically striking, environmentally friendly and economically beneficial.

Native landscaping is growing in popularity, helping bring people and nature closer together.

Alison leads the Natural Resources group. Her experience includes work in the natural resources field, including wetland and avian surveys, permitting, alternatives analysis, and environmental documentation for projects in both the public and private sector.

[email protected] | 612.360.1320

Kim is a planning professional with over 30 years of experience overseeing a variety of complex planning projects. She has worked in high growth communities with developers and the public on entitlements for residential development and attracting business to the city.

[email protected] | 763.287.8303

Kim Lindquist

Jason is the Director of Landscape Architecture at WSB with more than 25 years of experience in public space planning and design. From small-scale neighborhood park improvements to comprehensive park and trail system plans, Jason has worked with park boards, municipalities, governing agencies and community residents.

[email protected] | 612.518.3696

Jason Amberg

Supporting the Infrastructure of an Entire Community

July 18, 2023
By Brian Bourassa, VP of Corporate Development

Investing in the vitality of the city of Lino Lakes, Minnesota.

At WSB, we use the term infrastructure broadly to define the places, spaces and systems that support our lives.  As important as infrastructure is to our way of life, we don’t often think about it until something goes wrong.  We’ve been privileged to support communities across the U.S. with their infrastructure needs. The scale of the projects may vary, but the impact is always significant.  

For the last several decades, the city of Lino Lakes, just north of the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro, has been investing in their infrastructure across the community.  In the end, it’s not one single project that has helped to build a vibrant community, but rather the collective investment in varying infrastructure. These investments have played a vital role in spurring development and progress within the city.

1. Biological Water Treatment Plant

The city is currently planning to construct a water treatment plant due to some of the city wells having manganese levels above the recommended guidelines. A biological treatment approach is unique because it relies on natural microbial activity to remove contaminants rather than chemicals, an environmentally sustainable strategy.

2. West Shadow Lake Drive

West Shadow Lake Drive is a residential street that was plagued by potholes, had no sewer or water, and faced challenges from high groundwater levels due to its proximity to Reshanau Lake. As part of the city’s pavement management program, the road was removed and replaced to support the city’s roadway infrastructure and sanitary sewer, watermain and storm sewer infrastructure was also installed. In addition, environmental work and wetland enhancements occurred throughout the area.

3. 12th Avenue Trail Project

The 12th Avenue Trail connection was identified as a priority in the city’s Comprehensive Parks and Trails System Capital Improvement Plan due to the lack of trail connection along 12th Avenue.  Prior to project completion, the busy rural road was narrow with unsafe conditions for pedestrians and cyclists. The project resulted in increased safety and a more bikeable, accessible community.

4. Master Plan and Comprehensive Stormwater Management Plan

Located in the northeast corner of Lino Lakes is a 1300-acre greenfield area that is prime for development opportunities. WSB was contracted to develop a master plan, comprehensive stormwater management plan and update the Alternative Urban Areawide Review (AUAR) for the area. Development opportunities will include residential, industrial and commercial that will spur economic activity in the area. 

5. The Rookery Activity Center

When the local YMCA closed in 2020 it left a hole in the community. The city of Lino Lakes took action to reinvigorate the space. To establish itself as a new asset within the community, the building needed an overhaul, not just in amenities and programming, but also the brand.  WSB worked with the city to develop a story, identity and brand assets.

6. Tower Park  

Tower Park is located on a 60-acre piece of land that was purchased by the city over 20 years ago.  The city council felt strongly about developing the space into a destination recreation area for the community.  WSB provided the park master plan and phase 1 design support. Tower Park is now home to some of the city’s most popular pickleball and tennis courts.  The project was completed last year. 

7. Birch Street Roundabouts

Birch Street is a heavily traveled roadway through the city with frequent accidents occurring due to the number of entrances to the high-speed roadway.  There were safety concerns from residents and a nearby school. To help alleviate the number of accidents and increase safety, several roundabouts, medians, crosswalks and safety signage were added.

8. Gateways to the City – Placemaking

Lino Lakes is a proud community and wants to enhance their welcoming presence by creating placemaking monuments at city entrances. The project is still under development, but once complete, the entrances will offer a ‘front door’ to the city and will invite visitors and residents to step inside and explore the community.

9. Feasibility Study – Lake Amelia Subwatershed

A 255-acre subwatershed of Lake Amelia is currently undergoing a feasibility study to address existing stormwater management concerns and anticipated future land use changes to the area.  The short-term phase includes solutions to address flooding concerns.  The long-term phase proposes more holistic improvements to the corridor that that would occur alongside its eventual development. The study will help guide future planning in the area and will ensure that the area is prime for development.

10. Shenandoah Park Improvements

In partnership with the Rice Creek Watershed District, the city is exploring multiple improvements to the Shenandoah Park area to improve water quality, ensure its habitat is supported, and create a destination for park users. WSB is currently exploring water quality improvement options, wetland restoration, flood retention and greenway spaces to support the goals of the watershed district and the city.

Brian has more than 25 years of experience in the civil engineering field and has worked extensively in both the public and private market sectors. This experience has provided Brian with a broad engineering background, and has allowed him to develop a strong understanding of both public financing and private business perspectives. Brian’s lasting client relationships are a testament to the focus he places on developing creative solutions and providing over-the-top customer service.

3 Ways Communities Can Support Small Business

July 17, 2023
By Kim Lindquist, Director of Community Planning, WSB

Every community is different, but all are competing to be a destination for business growth and investment. Communities rely on businesses to help support and diversify their property tax base, provide goods and services for existing and future residents, and contribute to a strong, local economy.

What can communities do to attract small businesses to their city, and help them thrive, expand, and grow? Here are three things city leaders can do to help set them apart.

Be a Liaison for Businesses & Help Connect Them to Vital Resources

From small start-ups to large manufacturers, there are numerous resources out there to support business investment and expansion, but many businesses may not know where to go to take advantage of these funding opportunities. That’s where city leaders can come in.

Having city personnel designated to act as a liaison and help businesses navigate the state, federal, and local programs available is mutually beneficial for businesses and communities. Many of these programs can be confusing and for many businesses, having an expert who can help them understand and take advantage of the numerous opportunities available can be the difference maker in deciding where they start their small business.

Convene Businesses to Demonstrate a Continued Investment in Their Success

Once a business chooses your community, that’s not the end of the story. It’s important to continue to strategically engage them for input, foster relationships, and ensure continued open lines of communication.

One way to encourage engagement is to hold regular meetings so city leaders can hear directly from the business community about key issues and ideas. Communities can also foster regular communication with digital and email updates from the city on everything from grants to road closures, to key news from local government. It’s a great way to build positive relationships with local businesses!

Communities can also help new businesses by hosting ribbon cutting ceremonies, which offer free publicity, along with informational welcome packets to start a connection with business owners and share key resources.

Explore How You Can Make Your Community a Destination for Business Investment and Growth

Every local leader wants to ensure their community is a great place to live and work, and that means tackling challenges and investing in ideas that make your community an ideal destination for businesses and people.

While there is no one magic solution to solve every problem businesses and communities face, understanding obstacles and exploring creative solutions can help set you apart. Whether that’s ensuring daycare accessibility and affordability for families, investing in livable, walkable cities and public transportation, or ensuring there is plenty of workforce housing – understanding what businesses and workers need, and how the community can support those needs is important.

Furthermore, as businesses explore communities that meet their needs, cities can work with land and property owners to provide information about vacant lots and available retail space. To attract industrial businesses, shovel ready programs run through cities, states, or electric companies can also show what property is available to meet their needs.

How WSB Can Help

Is your community looking to attract new businesses? WSB can help.

We provide city planning with focuses on community and economic development, strategic planning, public engagement, and can even help apply for funding and grants.

Kim is a planning professional with over 30 years of experience overseeing a variety of complex planning projects. She has worked in high growth communities with developers and the public on entitlements for residential development and attracting business to the city.

[email protected] | 763.287.8303

Kim Lindquist

Prepare Your Community for an Aging Population

July 17, 2023
By Lori Johnson, Sr Professional Community Planner, WSB

When thinking about an aging population, it is becoming increasingly important for local governments to prioritize senior residents. By implementing creative and forward-thinking measures, communities can enhance the quality of life for older adults.

With the demand for senior housing only growing, embracing innovative housing solutions means local governments can create vibrant and age-friendly communities that prioritize the welfare and dignity of senior citizens. Inclusive infrastructure and understanding the diverse demands and needs of seniors can also help set up communities for success.

Here are three ways communities can plan for and invest in solutions that accommodate older adults.

Understand the Value of Multi-Unit, Multi-Generational and Affordable Housing Options

Many communities are adopting and updating zoning ordinances to provide more flexible and affordable housing for seniors.

Accessory dwelling units (ADUs), for example, can foster intergenerational connectivity. ADUs are separate, detached, living units located on the same property as an existing single-family home. Many aging individuals prefer to live in proximity to their families for companionship and support. Local governments can revise zoning regulations to accommodate ADUs, allowing seniors to maintain independent living while staying close to their loved ones. Moreover, these additional living spaces are often more cost-effective and provide flexibility in housing options that allow seniors to age in place while preserving their privacy and autonomy.

Repurposing larger, older homes in existing neighborhoods allows you to provide a certain level of care and companionship to older adults in a residential setting. Revisions to existing ordinances will allow single family homes to be converted into multi-family units for senior group care.

Rethink Parking Lots and Open Spaces

When building senior accommodations, another effective approach is to encourage the inclusion of open spaces in the design of structures and sites through specific ordinances requirements. Traditionally, apartment buildings require vast parking spaces, resulting in a sea of concrete that limits green spaces.

By rethinking parking requirements, local governments can convert excessive parking areas into open spaces for the enjoyment of residents. These green spaces provide opportunities for exercise, social interaction and relaxation, contributing to a healthier and happier community for seniors.

Another option for incentivizing the construction of senior housing is to look at ways to reduce the required park dedication fees for senior housing, nursing homes and memory care facilities. Specifically for nursing homes and memory care facilities, it is not common for residents of these facilities to use a community’s parks and open spaces, thus an argument can be made for not requiring park dedication fees for the development of senior facilities.

Build Inclusive Communities & Infrastructure

Local governments can prioritize the needs of senior citizens by ensuring they are listening to and understanding the needs of various populations. Creating walkable neighborhoods with well-maintained sidewalks, installing accessible public transportation systems and fostering age-inclusive community centers can help support a high quality of life for seniors. Such initiatives empower seniors to actively engage in social and recreational activities, reducing isolation and promoting a sense of belonging.

Furthermore, as communities adopt diversity, equity, and inclusion policies, they must also think about how this relates to their seniors. For seniors, their needs are not universally the same, and communities must consider cultural practices, income, religion, and medical care needs when planning on how to accommodate a growing senior population. Mental health must also be considered and providing increasing levels of services for residents as they age is critical, especially for seniors with Alzheimer’s or dementia.

How WSB Can Help

Local governments play a pivotal role in enhancing the lives of senior citizens. At WSB, we can help communities craft ordinances that meet the needs of any city as it relates to senior housing, whether it be ADUs, group care homes, or multi-family housing. We have experience with financing tools housing developers use to ensure the end product is affordable for seniors. We can also help identify and secure grant funding for key affordable housing and accessible infrastructure projects.

At the end of the day, all of us will be impacted by our aging population, whether for ourselves, for a parent or for a loved one. Communities must work collaboratively and think creatively to ensure a high quality of life for our nation’s aging population.

Lori has more than 25 years of experience working in a municipal planning department, having worked her way up through the planning department at the City of Blaine to become their city planner. She has worked in all aspects of city planning activities including project management, site plan and application review, public participation and long range planning.

[email protected] | 612.364.3029

League of Minnesota Cities Conference

Gaining valuable insights at the League of Minnesota Cities Conference

Bart Fischer, Senior Public Administrator, WSB

WSB recently attended the annual League of Minnesota Cities (LMC) Conference in Duluth. At this conference, more than 600 city officials and staff attended from different cities in Minnesota. LMC is a membership organization dedicated to promoting excellence in local government. The goal of the conference is to join city officials from across the state to develop new skills, discover ideas and show love for our cities. This year’s theme was “City Love.”

City officials and staff are incredibly knowledgeable when it comes to their cities and communities. As we thought through how we could engage with conference attendees, while also gathering valuable insights, the “City Love” theme brought us to two prompts: “What do I love most about my city?” and “If I had a million dollars for my city I would….”  We displayed two boards with the different questions at the exhibit hall and below is what we heard.

What do I love most about my city?

We received a number of different responses to this question; however, they all shared common themes. What city officials and staff love about their cities is their community. The people, diversity, infrastructure, and nature of a community is what people care about. City officials and staff work diligently to create a safe community with a high quality of life. Several of the responses reflected on open spaces, parks, trails, lakes, and wetlands.

What do I love most about my city

It is crucial to understand this information because it matters when making decisions for the future of the community. When city officials and staff are providing their best to their community it grows and strengthens the city.

WSB works to grow with them, and we want to strengthen our cities infrastructure through partnership. Understanding what is important to the people we work with allows us to better serve a city’s unique needs. We incorporate our client’s values to build what is next in infrastructure.

If I had a million dollars for my city I would…

On this board, the many responses reflected similar ideas, and all revolved around making their city better. Responses talked about infrastructure, parks, landscaping, safety, and economics.

If I had a million dollars for my city I would

Gathering this information, our team reflected on how WSB can play a role. We have collaborated with different communities to support their needs for nearly 30 years. Throughout this time, we’ve found that in many cases, one of the largest barriers to completing projects is funding. We work with cities to find a way to get their infrastructure projects completed from start to finish.

Following the conference, it was interesting to reflect on the collective responses from each question.  While many cities share similar needs and thoughts, the scale and specifics vary greatly because of their unique characteristics, geography, and constructs.  

Bart Fischer has over two decades of experience in public administration. Throughout his tenure, he’s worked in five Minnesota communities as the city or assistant city administrator. Bart joined our firm in 2019 as a senior public administrator and focuses on lending his public service expertise to our clients.

[email protected] | 651.485.1839

Housing, house

How Smart Cities Can Help Leaders Rethink Housing

March 13, 2023
Lori Johnson, Sr Professional Community Planner, WSB

From phone apps for garage doors and heating systems to new security tools like Ring doorbells, we use technology in our homes to make our lives easier. Now cities are also using technology in housing decisions to make the lives of residents better and improve their communities.

Smart city tools and data are key when cities think about housing, including when it comes to making constructive decisions, building homes, and identifying the greatest needs for community housing. 

Here are some ways cities are getting smart about housing. 

A Different Approach to Building Permits 

Until recently, builders were sending in paper copies of everything they needed to obtain building permits. Architectural plans and site plans were required, and they often came into building departments on large paper rolls. Inspectors and planners were using paper plans to review for code compliance and very often had to move these large plans from office to office. Now, technology is making this process smarter, more accessible, more efficient, and eco-friendly. 

There are several tech applications that cities can take advantage of for building permit issuance such as iMS and eTRAKiT. All building permits can be issued online, and everything is submitted and paid for electronically. The automation and productivity of issuing online building permits makes it faster and easier for builders to get started on homes – saving time and money.

Data-Driven Decision Making

With the use of online applications for building permit issuance, it also allows cities to collect information to make data-driven decisions. This means having access to information on home prices, location, types of construction, etc. 

Additionally, this data can be mapped to see where there are deficiencies in certain types of housing and resources. From that, communities can identify where there is a need for additional affordable housing, what types of housing are needed in different neighborhoods or regions, and make future investment and resource allocation decisions. Moreover, as affordable housing is a need in most communities, smart tools and data are essential to help resolve critical shortages. 

It’s not just city leaders that benefit from smart tools, but residents too. Technology allows homeowners and buyers to easily research addresses for past building permits, so they know what has been done to their home and when. There are also advantages when it comes to shopping for mortgages, allowing consumers to make educated purchase and remodeling decisions. 

The Building Process in 3D

Smart technologies are also affecting the way new homes are constructed. Some modular home builders use 3D modeling to generate home plans. Builders can then create modular homes in temperature-controlled environments at a faster pace than regular home construction and with less physical labor. It also helps eliminate barriers like being able to build in snowy, cold climates for instance. This is making home building more affordable and efficient. 

For city planners, the use of 3D modeling also comes into play when envisioning new housing types within communities. When planners are able to virtually see what the built environment will look like, they can make better recommendations to the community.

Looking Toward the Future

Integrating smart tools and tech into community building and planning allows cities to make smarter decisions. It can help identify and solve problems, tackle affordable housing shortages, and make processes more efficient and effective for builders and residents alike. 

It is important to remember that the term “smart cities” does not always mean that all citizens need to use technology to make their built environments better. But it does mean that it helps decision makers make smart decisions and smarter cities. WSB has many ideas and resources available to help cities be a part of this smart city evolution. If you have questions, we are always here to help you plan for and implement smart city technologies.

Lori has more than 25 years of experience working in a municipal planning department, having worked her way up through the planning department at the City of Blaine to become their city planner. She has worked in all aspects of city planning activities including project management, site plan and application review, public participation and long range planning.

[email protected] | 612.364.3029


The Top 5 Ways that the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act Benefits Communities

January 11, 2023

Late last fall, Congress passed the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), which infused an astounding $1.2 trillion into our nation’s infrastructure. The package, which includes $550 billion in new federal spending over the next five years, gave local and state governments significant opportunities to fund infrastructure improvements over the next several years, and many communities have already taken advantage of this influx of funding.

Transportation, clean energy, clean water, broadband expansion, and more, gave communities across the country an unprecedented opportunity to invest in projects that will have a meaningful impact on the future for residents, businesses, and the environment.

How Have Communities Benefited from this Funding?

Every community is different, and every community’s needs are different, but here are some of the top ways that local leaders, planners, and governments have benefited from IIJA.

Advancing Bigger Projects Sooner & Removing Financial Roadblocks

Whether a large metropolitan city or a small rural town, every community has a list of needed infrastructure projects, but funding and resources are often limited. Communities must prioritize, and sometimes put larger projects on the back burner due to budget constraints.

TheIIJA is helping to change that mindset for many communities, giving leaders a greater opportunity to think big. Whether it’s getting on a project funding priority list, putting forward a feasibility plan, or thinking more comprehensively about the environment, transportation, or other community infrastructure needs, the federal infrastructure law has provided meaningful opportunities to secure funding for projects that may have previously been out of reach.

Viewing Projects Through an Equity Lens & Involving More Voices in Community Planning

Equity is a major component of IIJA, creating a real opportunity for communities to invest in projects that benefit traditionally underserved communities, as well as advance sizable projects that create a better community for all. Including equity in infrastructure project planning not only enhances local communities and benefits residents, but it also gives projects a competitive edge in securing dollars from the federal funding package. 

Many communities are viewing their infrastructure projects through an equity lens and incorporating more voices as they plan for the future.

Addressing Climate Change & Infrastructure Resiliency

Our climate is changing, and “once-in-a-century” storms no longer occur just once in a century. Higher temperatures, drought, more intense precipitation, wildfires, flooding, and changing ecosystems are all issues that impact communities’ infrastructure planning. Building greater resiliency in projects and planning for more extreme weather and climate events is critical and recognized within the IIJA funding.

Green infrastructure, innovative stormwater solutions, water reuse systems, native landscaping, and more can help mitigate risk and better protect populations, native species, and habitats.

Developing Brownfield Sites

Brownfields – previously developed sites that are no longer in use – are underutilized space that present real opportunities for economic, social, and environmental revitalization. However, they are often costly to redevelop. With more than $1.5 billion allocated to brownfields in the infrastructure package, many communities are taking advantage of the opportunity to move forward with brownfield projects, and expand their city’s tax base, grow jobs, build housing, and develop sites in ways that benefit residents and the community at large.

Building a More Sustainable Future

Sustainability is a fundamental component to infrastructure, and IIJA allows communities to invest in forward-looking projects that will have long term, positive environmental and social impacts. From electric vehicle charging stations and energy storage to ecological restoration, greater investment in sustainability is allowing local leaders to make bigger, more thoughtful investments that will help address climate change and resiliency.

Navigating a once-in-a-generation opportunity

Our team of funding experts help communities navigate grant applications, data gathering, project design and engineering, sustainability planning, stakeholder engagement, and more. IIJA is a once-in-a-generation infrastructure investment opportunity, and communities of all sizes can and should tap into the extraordinary opportunity for infrastructure improvement and investment.