County to help local businesses cultivate growth

Anoka County’s new program to help local businesses grow starts this month.

Last year, the Anoka County Housing and Redevelopment Authority (HRA) entered into a $150,000 contract with the Edward Lowe Foundation to put in place an economic gardening project.

Its purpose is to help small and mid-sized (second-stage) businesses grow without leaving the county, according to Karen Skepper, HRA executive director and director of community and governmental relations, who has spearheaded the project for the county.

Specifically, the companies must have between six and 99 employees, have been in business for at least three years and are ready to expand, but may face challenges to that growth, Skepper said.

Fourteen businesses in the county have signed up for the year-long program, which is offered to them at no charge, and a 15th is expected to be on board by the time the first roundtable meeting takes place Jan. 22, Skepper said.

“None of the businesses are in competition with one another,” she said.

“They include a little bit of everything – retail, manufacturing, law office.”

The Anoka County Economic Gardening Project is managed by the National Center for Economic Gardening and hosted by the Edward Lowe Foundation, which has put in place successful economic gardening efforts around the country.

It was at the 3M Championship in early August 2012 that the county announced the project’s launch.

According to Skepper, companies that the county targeted for participation in the program were invited to the county tent at the TPC in Blaine to hear a presentation on the program, which included a representative from the Edward Lowe Foundation and a business owner from Hennepin County, who had successfully completed that county’s pilot project.

Over the course of the year, the business owners chosen will meet in eight large group roundtable and four small group forums which will be led by Steve Quello of the Edward Lowe Foundation, Skepper said.

The first forum is scheduled for Feb. 26.

All the roundtable and forum sessions will take place at Rasmussen College in Blaine.

At the sessions, the CEOs will work with experts in such areas as the Internet, GIS, market research and human resources to come up with action plans to grow their businesses, according to Skepper.

In addition, the business owners will receive 50 hours of customized training on a one-on-one basis with a team of advisers to learn about business tools and resources that Fortune 500 companies have used to be successful, Skepper said.

“The economic gardening concept takes an entrepreneurial approach to growing businesses,” she said.

With the start of the roundtable sessions, the county will be taking a back seat and the foundation will run the show, Skepper said.

According to the county’s economic gardening network website, the program targets growth-oriented companies and provides “a suite of high-end, high-speed business growth resources.”

Specific requirements for participation included:

• A for-profit, privately-held company headquartered and operating in Anoka County.

• Have between $750,000 and $50 million in annual revenue or working capital in place from investors or grants.

• Employ six to 99 full-time equivalent W-2 workers, including the owner.

• Maintained its principal place of business in Anoka County for at least the previous three years.

• Potential growth in revenue the next three years must exceed $1 million.

• Demonstrated growth in either revenue or employees in two of the last five years.

• Provide product(s) and/or services beyond current service area to regional and/or international markets.

To recruit businesses to be part of the program, Skepper worked with chambers of commerce located in the county, as well as economic development officials from cities in the county, attorneys, bankers and financial consultants, she said.

Skepper and Anoka County Board Chairperson Rhonda Sivarajah attended a meeting in the spring of 2012 with city of Coon Rapids officials where the Hennepin County economic gardening program was presented.

Following that meeting, Sivarajah directed that Anoka County begin the process of putting an economic gardening project in place.

At that time, Sivarajah said in an interview that she was enthusiastic about the program.

“I think so many times, the economic development focus is on bringing new companies into the area and while that’s very positive, it’s only a small piece of the puzzle,” she said.

This program provides the tools and technical assistance so that small businesses can grow and prosper, according to Sivarajah.

It is the smaller companies that create jobs in the community, Sivarajah said.

The HRA contract with the Edward Lowe Foundation is for one year, but other communities that have hired the foundation renew the agreement year after year, according to Skepper.

While there is no cost to the companies that are part of the economic gardening project in the first year, if they come back into the program in subsequent years, then they will have to pay a fee, Skepper said.

According to Skepper, economic gardening is particularly designed to help businesses that may have reached a stumbling block in their growth efforts and need support to overcome the problem.

“We don’t often hear about businesses that need some help in growing until they move out of the county,” Skepper said.

“With this economic gardening program, we can provide that help.”

According to the Edward Lowe Foundation website, the three basic elements of economic gardening are:

• Providing critical information needed by businesses to survive and thrive.

• Developing and cultivating an infrastructure that goes beyond the basic physical infrastructure and includes quality of life, a culture that embraces growth and change, and access to intellectual resources, including qualified and talented employees.

• Developing connections between businesses and the people and organizations that can help take them to the next level.

The foundation is a nationally-recognized entrepreneurship development organization headquartered in Cassopolis, Mich.

Ed and Darlene Lowe established the foundation in 1985 to “champion the entrepreneurial spirit” and leverage entrepreneurship as a strategy for economic growth and community development.

The foundation hosts the National Center for Economic Gardening.

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Peter Bodley is at [email protected]