Bringing economic development to the area

The 13-county metropolitan area, which stretches into western Wisconsin, has as much economic clout as countries such as Switzerland, Ukraine and Israel in terms of the market value of goods produced in the area.

William Blazar, senior vice president of public affairs and business development for Grow Minnesota!, spoke at a July 25 economic development summit hosted by Anoka County United. Photo by Eric Hagen
William Blazar, senior vice president of public affairs and business development for Grow Minnesota!, spoke at a July 25 economic development summit hosted by Anoka County United. Photo by Eric Hagen

A fairly new group called Greater MSP, which is mostly funded by the private sector, is flying staff all over the country and world to let key site selectors know where the Twin Cities metro stands not only in the American economy, but the world’s economy as well. Two key staff members of this group along with a representative from Grow Minnesota! met with local business and government leaders July 25 to talk more about what they can offer to Anoka County and the region as a whole.

The Anoka County Economic Development Summit at the Harvest Grill in Coon Rapids was hosted by Anoka County United, whose board members include business owners and chamber of commerce members.

In short, Greater MSP will point out the positive aspects of the region to outsiders but will not specifically advocate for one county or community over another. When they get a lead, they send out an e-mail blast to all economic development contacts at government and broker offices and let these individuals state their case. This information is then shared with the companies thinking about relocating, according to David Griggs, vice president of business investment for Greater MSP.

“Every deal we do in the end is a local deal,” Griggs said. “We can bring opportunity. We can find opportunity, but in the end it’ll be up to the local communities to either close the deal or not close the deal.”

This does not mean money needs to be involved, said Greater MSP Executive Vice President Kathy Schmidlkofer. It could be having “shovel ready” sites, having properties that have the proper land use and zoning to meet the developer’s needs or having information on-hand to quickly provide to the site selectors.

“When we get the notice from our clients, we don’t have a month. We have a couple of days to respond, so having this database and efficient communication channels already set up and ready to go is only going to put us in the best in class,” Schmidlkofer said.

The goal of Greater MSP is to add 100,000 jobs to the metro region by the end of 2016. Schmidlkofer said this is the number of jobs lost during the economic recession.

Greater MSP on July 25 had staff members in Duluth and Chicago, Ill., recruiting businesses. It has offices in China and Japan, which are second and third respectively behind the United States for gross domestic product (GDP).

However, Schmidlkofer said the focus needs to be on more than recruiting businesses to come to the Twin Cities. Keeping businesses here is just as important, she said.

“You can’t have an attraction program unless you have a strong retention program,” Schmidlkofer said.

William Blazar is the senior vice president of public affairs and business development for Grow Minnesota!, which is a subsidiary of Minnesota Chamber of Commerce that focuses on job retention and creation.

When Blazer asked the audience for top two reasons businesses chose to move outside Minnesota, the first response was taxes. Blazer said this was not one of the main reasons given.

The number one reason was lack of access to markets, meaning there were not enough complementary businesses in the region to meet their demand. One company may chose to relocate to Detroit, Mich., because they have a big client there, he used as an example.

One of the jobs Grow Minnesota! takes on is bringing together companies unaware of each other. For instance, he connected a furniture manufacturer with a furniture design company.

Grow Minnesota! has 57 chamber of commerce partners including the MetroNorth Chamber of Commerce and Twin Cities North Chamber of Commerce in Anoka County.

The number two reason was a lack of skilled workers that could meet their needs. About one in three businesses told Grow Minnesota! that they had trouble filling job openings whether that means they could not fill the opening or it took them longer to fill the opening than they had planned for.

The particular areas where there is a need for more skilled workers are precision production, technology and management level people. The greatest need is for precision production workers and this fact has not changed in the nine years that Grow Minnesota! has been meeting with companies, according to Blazar.

“I think the issue is the ability of the institutions to change either the content of the courses that they’re offering or to change their curriculum entirely,” Blazar said. “For whatever reason, they haven’t been flexible enough or agile enough to change the curriculum at the rate which the economy is changing.”

Blazar gave an example of working with a company in Dakota County that is in the middle of expanding and needs to hire approximately 300 software technicians who are familiar with the program they use. They ended up working with the St. Cloud Technical College because this institution stepped forward and had the greatest ability to adapt their curriculum to meet the needs of this company.

Blazar said with a new chancellor of Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU), with a new president at the University of Minnesota and renewed interest on this issue because of the aging population, he believes changes are coming that will address this workforce issue.

Eric Hagen is at [email protected]