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5 Questions for Brandt Richardson

The manager of Minnesota's Dakota County knows the fastest-growing age group in his area are people 65+ — so he's helping the region's urban, suburban and rural communities get ready

Portrait, Smiling, Indoors, Brandt Richardson, 5 Questions, Livable Communities

Photo courtesy Dakota County, Minnesota

Brandt Richardson oversees the daily operations of Dakota County.

Located in the southeast corner of the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area, Dakota County's 587 square miles of urban, suburban and rural communities are home to 412,000 residents, making it Minnesota's third most populous county. Dakota County communities range from walkable urban developments with transit access to rural areas near the regional highway system.

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The fastest-growing age group in Dakota County is the population that's age 65 and older, which is projected to increase by 200 percent from 2010 to 2030 and by 250 percent from 2010 to 2040. That amounts to 140,000 people and is two times faster than the 65+ population is expected to grow in the state at large. By contrast, the two youngest age groups — newborn to age 4 and ages 5 to 14 — are expected to grow at a rate similar to the state or slower.

Dakota County has an elected seven-member Board of Commissioners that appoints a manager to serve as the county's administrative and operations chief. Brandt Richardson, who has held the post since 1992, will be retiring from the position on May 1.

1. Dakota County has numerous towns, each with its own government, as well as unincorporated areas for which the county is the primary governing body. How do the county and town levels of government interact, and how does working with the municipalities differ from the work you do for the county-at-large?

Dakota County includes 13 townships and 21 incorporated cities, all of which have elected and appointed officials that may independently deliver government services.

County elected officials and department staff work closely with the local governments to provide services in a variety of ways — ranging from informal monthly meetings to the numerous formal joint powers arrangements. These intergovernmental arrangements might rely on cost-sharing, financial incentives and the sharing of oversight and authority in the delivery of services. Developing these arrangements requires additional effort and creative approaches to reduce complexity.

But what's most fundamental to the long history of collaborative service delivery in Dakota County is a focus on providing cost-effective services to our constituents. The county and our component cities know that residents expect high-quality services at the least cost regardless of who delivers them.

The county-delivered services are provided through clear policy from our governing board and consistent planning and administration through county departments. Even for services exclusively delivered by the county, however, we pursue extensive engagement and input from residents and the partnering local governments.

2. What makes Dakota County a livable community for people of all ages, and especially for older adults?

Cities in Dakota County often rank high on best places to live lists. The city of Eagan is the recent example, ranking fifth among "America's 50 Best Cities to Live" for its low unemployment and low crime rate, according to the website 24/7 Wall St.

The city of Rosemount ranked 12th in the nation among communities studied in Money magazine's "Best Places to Live 2015." The cities of Apple Valley and Lakeville have been ranked in earlier editions.

Tree Lined Lake In Autumn With Blue Sky, Daylight, Outdoors, Livable Communities, 5 Questions With Brandt Richardson

Photo courtesy Dakota County, Minnesota

Lebanon Hills Regional Park

The county has active community and senior centers and YMCAs that offer innovative and evidence-based programming including "Matter of Balance" fall prevention classes for older adults, as well as Nordic walking, line dancing, pickleball and brewery tours.

We have three regional parks, two park reserves and one county park as well as more than 25 miles of regional trails that offer a mix of year-round nature-based recreational opportunities.

Dakota County has created a volunteer coordinator position to raise the profile of volunteering opportunities within the county, and we have several unique public-private community projects. One example is a private independent living development in Rosemount, which will be connected to a 10,000-square-foot activity center run by the city. Both facilities will be linked to a multipurpose assembly space that will feature intergenerational activities.

The county's Community Development Agency (CDA) is one of the largest local providers of housing and community development programs in Minnesota, so we have a distinct advantage in providing high-quality affordable housing to our residents. The CDA administers more than 30 programs and manages more than 2,700 units of affordable workforce and housing designed for adults ages 55 and older.

To date, the CDA has constructed 27 housing developments — consisting of 1,609 units — for older adults in Dakota County and has provided tax credits to assist in the development of a private senior facility in West St. Paul, which is a Dakota County city located just south of the larger city of St. Paul.

3. What needs to be improved or changed about Dakota County to make it a more livable community for people of all ages, and especially for older adults?

The Dakota County staff is working with communities to inventory our strengths and gaps through community dialogues and asset-mapping conversations. These interactions educate and engage residents, elected officials and leaders of nonprofits and businesses as an important first step toward creating age-friendly communities.

Additional community dialogues and strategic planning will highlight gaps in infrastructure, services and programming that the county and cities need to address before the demographic changes overwhelm our current capacity.   

If we provide a wider range of affordable housing types — beyond single family homes — and foster areas that are more walkable, then it's more likely that residents, particularly older adults, will be able to reside in their home communities.

Two Women Walking On Trail Through Woods, Park, Outdoors, Trees, Livable Communities, 5 Questions With Brandt Richardson

Photo courtesy Dakota County, Minnesota

Two women take a walk in the woods.

Additional support for innovative transit models, such as volunteer driver programs and evolving ride-share services like Uber and Lyft, can provide viable transportation options for all residents, including older adults.

A majority of our area's "boomers," which are generally people ages 50 to 70, live in suburban communities, many of which are not fully prepared to serve their needs as they age. The reality is that individuals and families need to take responsibility and plan for the future. Among the key questions to consider:

  • "Are services available in the community that can help people like me stay in my home?"
  • "Does the community offer viable transit options?"
  • "Are there affordable housing options in walkable areas that support aging in place?"

If these critical supports aren't available, people may need to consider moving to places where these options are available.   

A number of Dakota County's cities are responding to our area's projected demographic changes by creating areas of "suburban-intensity"— which involves developing core downtown districts that are accessible and walkable and feature shopping options, parks and public spaces, and housing including condos, townhomes and apartments. The Central Village in Apple Valley, Heart of the City in Burnsville and the Village in Mendota Heights are prime examples of this suburban-intensity.

Apple Valley is also the current destination of the Metro Red Line, a rapid bus transitway developed by Dakota County that links to the Mall of America in Bloomington, which is located right over the county line, and the Blue Line light-rail service, which connects Dakota County to the larger Metro Transit System.

4. Much of Dakota County is rural. How does the county meet the needs of residents who live far from commercial hubs or services, especially if they're older or don't drive?

The geographic size of the county creates transportation challenges for residents who live in more rural areas. The more densely-populated northern section of the county has fixed-route bus service, but most county residents rely on personal vehicles for transportation.

When older residents can no longer drive they rely on family, friends and neighbors to help meet their basic needs. Volunteer driver programs are one critical component of a system to help older residents get to important activities like medical appointments. However, more volunteer drivers are needed to meet the demand. In addition, there's a growing need for trips to other destinations, such as to stores or a pharmacy.

A slide from a Powerpoint presentation about population statistics in Dakota County, Minnesota

Image courtesy Dakota County, Minnesota

A page from a presentation by the Dakota County Communities for a Lifetime initiative explains the speed at which the area's population is aging.

This past year Dakota County was a leader in Minnesota in creating a Transportation Coordinating Collaborative. The collaborative works with transportation stakeholders to coordinate services and programs that can achieve increased efficiencies and support mobility and accessibility for all residents, especially for older adults and people with special transportation needs.

5. Talk about the county's Communities for a Lifetime initiative. Why was it created and how does it work? What's been achieved so far? 

The Dakota County Communities for a Lifetime (CFL) initiative was created in 2012 in order to bring together residents, business owners, local officials and staff from community organizations, cities and the county to create networks of active, accessible communities. The aging initiative's main objective is to increase awareness about implications of future demographic changes and provide a menu of options for how communities can respond based on each location's strengths and gaps.  

CFL embodies a community planning framework — a philosophy of inclusiveness — that believes planning and building for an older population creates a community that serves all ages. The premise is that healthy, active and successful residents yield economic and social benefits for the whole community. This concept resonates with people from all age groups.

The CFL initiative engages communities in active planning, sharing best practice models, and by partnering on age-friendly projects. Over the last three years, the initiative has held World Café-style community dialogues in five Dakota County cities and created assessment tools, including a survey that was mailed to all boomers in one city, with the results helping to shape strategic planning efforts. Another community survey assessed the transportation needs of older adults.

CFL has also supported work groups in four cities that assist in planning and implementing age-friendly projects, such as a home modification video that educates the community about the universal design improvements residents can make to their homes.

Another work group assembled a city-based resource directory for older adults and their families. The initiative co-sponsors a yearly countywide summit — "Living Longer: The Power and Possibilities" — that educates the public and providers about aging-related issues. In 2015, a coalition of public-private partners in one city launched the LOOP, a circulator bus that provides handicap-accessible service and connects residents with the business district.

The CFL initiative is also creating a series of city profiles for the major cities in Dakota County. The profiles highlight key components that create an age-friendly community, including a city's housing performance score, transit options, land use, walkability score and age-friendly policies, such as an Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) policy, a Complete Streets policy, a mixed-use land policy and bike-walk policy.

Additionally, the profiles incorporate a few of indicators from the AARP Livability Index. When completed, the profiles will be a resource that can assist cities in gauging their progress toward being age-friendly as they undertake a comprehensive planning process in 2016.

Melissa Stanton is the editor of

Published February 2016

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