Business study reveals challenges, opportunities

Results of a business retention and expansion study for which the city of Coon Rapids partnered with the University of Minnesota Extension Service and business leaders were unveiled last month at a retreat at Anoka-Ramsey Community College.

Businesses contacted in the study anticipate continued hiring. According to the study, the businesses expect to hire 900 positions, one company accounting for half of those anticipated jobs. Nearly half the companies visited expect to hire professional and managerial employees in the next three years, while 11 businesses plan to hire engineers, scientists and technicians.                                Graph: city of Coon Rapids

Businesses contacted in the study anticipate continued hiring. According to the study, the businesses expect to hire 900 positions, one company accounting for half of those anticipated jobs. Nearly half the companies visited expect to hire professional and managerial employees in the next three years, while 11 businesses plan to hire engineers, scientists and technicians. Graph: city of Coon Rapids

And the task force and leadership team that spearheaded the study has started work on six projects to boost business retention and growth in Coon Rapids.

The survey reveals both opportunities and challenges for the city in retaining businesses and helping them to grow.

The Coon Rapids City Council contracted with the Extension Service to tabulate and analyze the responses to the survey, which was undertaken by a task force of businesses leaders in the community last fall.

Twenty-seven businesses, 14 of which were in the manufacturing sector, with more than 100 employees, were visited for interviews.

The questions were designed to identify specific opportunity areas, challenges and issues facing the Coon Rapids business community.

“The focus of the program was to ensure existing businesses remain strong and expand within the community,” said Community Development Director Marc Nevinski.

In addition to compiling and analyzing the survey responses, the Extension Service presented “overarching strategies for addressing the universal issues identified” and potential projects for addressing the issues.

Three strategies were outlined at the retreat.

1. Celebrate the strong business climate in Coon Rapids and build on community successes and assets.

2. Strengthen support for manufacturing, business development and expansion.

3. Address current and future workforce needs and gaps.

From the results and analysis of the survey, the task force and its leadership team, headed by Maureen Steinwall, president and chief executive officer of Steinwall Manufacturing, Inc., Coon Rapids, chose six projects on which to focus.

• Explore ways in which the city of Coon Rapids might offer a matching grant to businesses participating in the Anoka-Ramsey Community College customized training program through grants from the Minnesota Job Skills Partnership.

• Conversation among higher education resources and businesses in “career laddering,” internships, mentoring, part-time employment and/or retroactive scholarships.

• City hosting a business summit or business appreciation event.

• Continued redevelopment activities with special attention paid to land issues.

• Promote access of the existing fiber backbone in Coon Rapids for access by business.

• Relationship building with experts and resource people, such as chambers of commerce, then help bridge those relationships to businesses.

According to Matt Brown, city community development specialist, who led city staff support of the project, one of the findings of the survey was a lack of land supply in Coon Rapids for businesses wishing to expand.

“There is only a limited amount of space in Coon Rapids and we don’t want to miss opportunities,” Brown said.

In addition, the task force wants to build on the success of the manufacturers roundtable that the city hosted last year by doing something similar again, he said.

“We want to have some type of event to engage the business community,” Brown said.

Findings of the study included:

• Through 2012, there were 7,167 businesses supplying 111,627 jobs in Anoka County with 24,563 (22 percent) of those in Coon Rapids. Health care/social assistance and retail trade were the largest employers in the city followed by manufacturing.

• Coon Rapids, like Anoka County as a whole, is a net exporter of labor. In 2010, the city drew 16,716 workers from other cities, but lost 28,498.

• Surveyed businesses currently employ 4,125 people and total employment grew by 358 jobs over three years prior to the survey visits.

• Businesses surveyed are planning for change. Nineteen are planning to expand; 11 of them in a new location and eight at their current site. None of them are planning to downsize, sell or close.

• Businesses had concerns about the quality of their workforce.

• On average, the companies surveyed feel Coon Rapids is a better place to do business than to live, but the city also received “a relatively low score” as a place to do business.

• Coon Rapids rates very well in categories like highway accessibility and proximity to major markets.

• There is overall satisfaction with the services and responsiveness of the city.

• Satisfaction with health care facilities, recreational opportunities and housing supply; cultural opportunities and child care availability drew the least satisfaction.

According to the report, overall the surveys reveal a strong manufacturing industry in Coon Rapids and businesses in the city are responsive to market changes and opportunities.

“Businesses in Coon Rapids demonstrate they have a vision for the future with both vision plans and succession plans in place,” the report states.

“Finally, Coon Rapids has assets including Anoka-Ramsey Community College and Mercy Hospital.”

The weaknesses identified in the survey report primarily focused on resources.

“Coon Rapids is a fully developed city,” the report states. “Businesses looking to expand may have to locate in different communities in order to meet their space needs.”

“Survey results indicate that land costs and the availability of land and buildings are limiting factors for businesses.”

According to the report, qualified employees are another resource businesses are looking for.

“They report difficulties in finding the employees they require,” the report states.

“Finally, survey highlights an underlying perception of a lack of community enthusiasm.”

But the survey analysis has identified several opportunities.

• Redevelopment of industrial areas.

• Additional employee training.

• Education institution partnerships.

• Improved public relations.

Threats identified in the report are lack of available land for development, lack of a clear perception of Coon Rapids as a community, expanding businesses moving elsewhere and a shortage of skilled employees.

Peter Bodley is at peter.bodley@ecm-inc.com

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