Business district is Columbus’s quiet success story

Graphic provided
The city of Columbus’s commercial industrial zoning district on Lake Drive has been an attractive location for contractors and other businesses for more than a decade.

Lately, Columbus has been getting a lot of local focus on the land and business potential surrounding the State Highway 97/Lake Drive Northeast bridge. Be it excitement for the potential business boon once the bridge over Interstate Highway 35 is replaced, anticipation of a new (now potentially stalled) hotel near Running Aces Casino and Racetrack, or scrutiny over a proposed asphalt plant to be built a couple of miles south, the region has attracted attention as a potential success story for Columbus’s business development hopes.

However, a different area of Columbus has been quietly racking up business successes for years, thanks to the city’s openness to the needs and timelines of “commercial industrial” operators.

The southern stretch of Lake Drive Northeast in the city – an area ranging from Columbus’s southern border to Lake Drive’s intersection with Potomac Street Northeast – has for decades been zoned as commercial industrial, making it an ideal home for contractors like North Pine Aggregate and Forest Lake Contracting, as well as for commercial businesses like the duo of Waldoch Craft and Waldoch Sports. Though City Administrator Elizabeth Mursko said the zoning district has existed since the mid-20th Century, she estimated that the district’s current success really got rolling in the late 1990s, when the leaders of what was then Columbus Township were working on a comprehensive plan and decided to prioritize the area as an attractive place for contractors.

Mursko believes the biggest draw of the area lies in the Town Board’s decision to, essentially, use its zoning to make a standing offer that many contractors are hard-pressed to refuse: Build here, and you’re allowed to have outdoor storage. Once businesses begin moving in and taking advantage of the storage requirements and the large swaths of land on the corridor, word of mouth began working its way around the greater metro.

“It’s kind of like new car dealerships,” Mursko said of the construction contractor-heavy business neighborhood. “The word is out, and you locate together.”

The area continues to exert its pull on metro businesses in need of space. The Times spoke with representatives for three businesses that have recently completed or are currently in the process of completing building projects along the corridor, and all three had nothing but praise for the city’s willingness to accommodate them.

Blake Drilling Company Inc. specializes in temporarily lowering the water table at a site to allow other contractors to complete construction projects. A few years ago, the company began the process of moving from its old Blaine location to Columbus. The company began building last fall and expects to be fully transitioned in a few more years.

“We’re growing, which is a good thing, and we’re in the construction industry … and we have a lot of equipment where we need to have outside storage,” Blake Drilling Company President Mike Meyer said. “No one had enough property that we were looking for.”

In Columbus, Blake Drilling Company could increase its building square footage and the size of its property – up from around four acres in Blaine to 18 in Columbus. Meyer felt the city welcomed the business with open arms.

“I found that everyone in the city is easy to communicate with, which made it enticing for us,” he said.

That communication was vital for EJM Pipe Services, which moved its headquarters from Lino Lakes to Columbus in September 2016. EJM specializes in “trenchless technology,” which allows for the installation of underground pipes or tunnels without needing to dig up or disrupt the ground’s surface – a needed service when installing pipes under a road, river or similar obstacle. EJM Vice President of Administration Vicki Lundgren recalled the first time EJM planned on moving to Columbus.

“We had bought the property [at 14461 Lake Dr. NE], and then we had to clear it, and then our plan was to build it around 2009, 2010,” she said. “We were quite busy in 2009, and then the recession hit and then we were thankful that we hadn’t built.”

After making it through some lean years, EJM was ready to expand again, and the business’s land up in Columbus still had the space and outdoor storage flexibility the company needed. Lundgren said the city was very patient with EJM and didn’t pressure the business to get a project started or move along.

“The city of Columbus was gracious enough to roll along with us,” she said.

The business’s Lino Lakes property was only four acres, but EJM’s new home is almost four times that, plus additional acreage of wetlands that the company can’t develop. Lundgren said the additional room gives the business’s vehicles more flexibility in which to operate, adding that EJM feels a camaraderie with the many industry partners among which it now operates.

“It’s like contractors boulevard up here,” she said. “It kind of gives you that hometown feeling.”

Of the three businesses the Times spoke with, City View Electric made the longest move: From St. Paul up to 14309 Lake Dr. NE. City View Vice President Mike Nelson said there just wasn’t enough room for expansion in the heart of the metro.

“We’ve had warehousing up [in Columbus] for about three years now, and last year we built the new building and a new warehouse and we moved our whole operation up there,” he said.

Like the other two businesses, City View takes advantage of outdoor storage, but Nelson said the company is moving away from that, trying to store more of its equipment indoors. However, Nelson said Columbus’s flexibility in other areas was a boon.

“The building code requirements up there as far as types of buildings we can build are more lenient,” he said.

In essence, Nelson explained, Columbus’s zoning rules offered more flexibility on issues like building size, building materials, and sprinkler systems, allowing the electrical contractor the ability to build at a cheaper cost per square foot than it would have been able to in many other municipalities.

“All the people at the city offices and City Council have been very supportive and friendly to business, I would say,” he remarked.

City Councilman Mark Daly, himself a longtime electrical contractor and a former member of the city’s Planning Commission, said the council (which is mostly made up of business owners) respects the unique requirements of individual businesses, which helps the body work with the many companies who call Columbus home.

“It’s coming along nicely down there,” said Daly of the industrial corridor. “There’s room to do stuff, and a lot of other municipalities don’t have that room.”

Daly said business expansion in Columbus is a little-considered aid to the city’s residents as well and another reason why the city tries to be flexible for companies that are considering relocation.

“They don’t realize the importance of [businesses] for their tax base,” he said of residents.

As the Lake Drive corridor begins to fill up, Daly sees a possibility for Columbus’s approach in the area to work in a different part of the city with plenty of business potential: The Freeway District, which runs along both sides of I-35 from the area surrounding the 97 bridge in the north to the southern border of Columbus. Much of that area has been zoned for commercial in the past, and while Daly thinks there’s still a lot of potential for that kind of development – particularly after the bridge is replaced and County Road 54 is realigned – he cited a 2015 study commissioned by the city that suggested that there wasn’t enough demand for retail in the area to fill the entire
district.

“They basically told us we have way too much showroom commercial; it’s never going to fill up,” Daly said.

As such, he said, he and some other council members have been open to “rethinking” ways the district could be used, including possibly limiting commercial zoning to land closer to the bridge and allowing other kinds of development toward the edges of the district. That’s one reason he’s open to the prospect of an asphalt plant in the “Triangle property” just south of I-35 split, an area that had already been zoned as light industrial (Daly’s interview occurred before Running Aces’ announcement that it was halting work on a hotel near the proposed site of the plant).

“The further you get away [from freeway access], the less demand there is,” he said.

Regardless of what ultimately becomes of the asphalt project, Daly is confident that the council’s pro-business environment and Columbus’s placement in the north metro will eventually yield growth in the Freeway District to match the success of the Lake Drive corridor.

“We’re the next stop along the freeway,” he said. “Nobody wants to be the first guy on the block, but once they see that you can succeed there, then they think, ‘Well, we can succeed there.’”

Lake Drive’s recent additions certainly feel they’ve been set up for success.

“They’ve been good to work with,” Meyer said of city officials. “We look forward to a longevity there.”