Moving from ideas to action is the major goal for any community’s economic development efforts, but it’s something Cass County has been doing for the past 20 years,
Michael Darger, program leader with the University of Minnesota Extension Services Community Economics Program, commended the Cass County Economic Development Commission (EDC) for its success in fostering new businesses and retaining existing ones and, in so doing, create good-paying, full-time jobs with benefits.
Speaking Sept. 27 at the EDC’s annual meeting at Northern Lights Event Center, Darger noted that the UM-Extension has been working in Cass County for about two decades. He noted that about 80 percent of new businesses created with EDC assistance are still in existence.
“That’s very exciting,” he declared, “a true public-private partnership.”
Members include several nonprofit foundations and organizations, dozens of cities and townships, many financial institutions, and dozens of private individuals and businesses.
In 1992, he continued, the per capita personal income in Cass County was only about 73 percent of per capita income in the U.S. By 2010-11, Cass’s per capita income had risen to 91 percent of the U.S. figure. “That’s quite an increase in 20 years!”
Employment in Cass County has nearly rebounded to levels before the 2008 recession and stand at just 30 fewer. Cass’s current unemployment rate of 7.6 percent is above the historical rate of 6.2 percent, “but there are more people living here now,” he added.
One challenge for Walker and nearby small towns is that they are is halfway between two larger retail trade centers: Brainerd (fifth-largest in the state) and Bemidji (eighth-largest).
“So do you cooperate — or compete?” Darger asked rhetorically.
Whatever the decision, he encouraged community leaders to do four things.
• Talk over ideas with leaders, businesses, organizations and others.
• Be rigorous
• Catalog ideas, write them down, analyze
• Triangulate, test ideas, strive for transparency.
EDC Executive Director Gail Leverson introduced two Cass County businesses that have received EDC assistance.
Arnold Volker has many years of experience managing manufacturing businesses. A business partner of the late John Zacher of Next Innovations in Walker, Arnold was hired to manage the firm by Zacher’s family after his death in an accident last year.
When Next Innovations started in 2002, it received help from the EDC and was one of the first JOB-Z programs in the state.Throughout 2012 Next Innovations has been diversifying and restructuring its business model, looking for new market opportunities and positioning the company for growth.
“The EDC was very instrumental in our economic comeback,” Volker stated. From a low of 25 employees, Next Innovations now employs about 25. It also recently signed deals to produce products for Seaworld, Busch Gardens and Discovery Coves and will be providing glass products for the renovation of the Southdale Mall.
New business entrepreneurs Travis and Jennifer Kelley of JenTraTools demonstrated Travis’ patented invention, the “Cheatah Tool,” a n innovative kit designed to simplify door installation, ensuring accuracy and speeding up the installation process. The kit helps set spacing and levels the door vertically and horizontally.
Travis noted that the EDC office in Backus is just a few blocks from his business. The EDC helped him create a business plan and directed him to other organizations such as the Initiative Foundation, Crow Wing Power and the Legal Forum to find funding and get legal assistance with licensing agreements and filing patents.
The website for the Cheatah door installation kit and JenTra Tools is www.jentra tools.com. Currently the Cheatah is sold at 19 building centers in northern Minnesota, including in Walker, Hackensack, Backus, Longville, Park Rapids and Bemidji.
EDC Past President Dave Johnson reviewed the history of the Cass County EDC, from the years when its main focus was tourism, to its switch to becoming a nonprofit corporation in 1998. He commended Leverson for being instrumental in helping the board of directors re-focus on job creation and essentially re-start the EDC.
“The last eight years have been the most productive of any EDC around,” he declared.
Leverson agreed that stable, year-round jobs with benefits is what the EDC strives for. Businesses that responded to the EDC’s 2012 job creation survey reported 655 employees who earn an average of $13.28 per hour. The industry break-down shows 37 percent retail, 33 percent manufacturing, 15 percent service, 9 percent health car, and 6 percent other.