Business project – the next steps

Five projects and initiatives are being implemented to focus on issues that emerged from a city of Coon Rapids business retention and expansion study.

An update on those projects and initiatives took place at a recent meeting in the Anoka-Ramsey Community Performance Training Center.

“There was positive feedback on the next steps that are being taken,” said Matt Brown, city community development specialist, who is spearheading the city staff effort.

The program is designed to “ensure strength for existing businesses and promote expansion of businesses in the community,” according to Brown.

In February, the study task force identified projects and initiatives after receiving the results of a study. In partnership with the University of Minnesota Extension Service, the study involved local volunteers visiting businesses in Coon Rapids to gather information about specific opportunities, challenges and issues facing the city’s business community.

The program has been directed by leadership team chaired by Maureen Steinwall, owner of Steinwall, Inc., and comprising seven representatives of local businesses and institutions, as well as a larger task force which did the visits, 27 of them last fall, to mainly large employers and manufacturing companies.

The University of Minnesota Extension Service analyzed the information gathered from the visits and put together a report which was presented at a meeting of the task force in February, where the priority projects and initiatives were identified.

According to Brown, major findings in the study were:

• The businesses surveyed have a total of 4,125 employees and added 358 jobs over the last three years while anticipating adding another 900 jobs in the next three years.

• Nineteen of the businesses surveyed are planning to expand, eight at their current location and 11 at a new site.

• Survey respondents said Coon Rapids was a better place to do business than to live, 68 percent rating the city as an excellent or above average place to do business.

• The businesses generally rated city services and other community factors highly, especially police, fire, utilities, highway accessibility and proximity to major markets.

• The businesses surveyed are prepared to respond to market changes.

• Businesses were satisfied with health care facilities and recreation opportunities in Coon Rapids, less so with cultural opportunities.

• Transportation issues were an important factor in encouraging business growth and survey respondents were satisfied with Coon Rapids’ transportation infrastructure overall.

• Several of the businesses, while they have been growing and expect to continue to do so, spoke of difficulties in recruiting employees, notably engineers, scientists, technicians and skilled manufacturing employees because of competition for these workers and inadequate labor skills.

From the findings of the survey, the study program task force identified five projects and initiatives as priorities.

1. Assist with employee training by exploring how the city might offer a matching grant dedicated to real estate and equipment to assist businesses who are participating with Anoka-Ramsey Community College in customized job training through the Minnesota Job Skills Partnership grant program.

2. To address land supply issues, the city will continue to prepare land for reuse, ensuring that comprehensive land use plans and zoning standards allow for maximum investment.

3. Build on the city’s semi-annual business roundtable breakfast program launched last fall to strengthen relationships with businesses in the city and recognize their contributions to the local economy. Another forum took place last month at Anoka-Ramsey Community College attended by some 25 people.

According to Brown, Mayor Tim Howe will work with the Community Strength Foundation, which sponsors communitywide events with outside sources of funding, to create a new event that celebrates the contribution of the city’s businesses.

“That could happen fairly quickly,” said Brown, with a golf tournament one option that’s under consideration.

4. Strengthen connections between businesses and higher education to address the “skills gap” that was identified in the study through “career laddering” and identify skills and certifications that are lacking to modify curriculum and workforce training offerings.

5. Promote access to fiber Internet through Anoka County’s broadband fiber infrastructure project which is nearly complete and is undergoing testing. A marketing plan will be unveiled by the county’s partner on the project, Zayo, which will work with local providers.

According to Brown, the leadership team plans to meet in August or September to follow up on the implementation of the projects and initiatives.

Funding for the program has come from the city, Connexus Energy, Xcel Energy, CenterPoint Energy, Central Bank, KleinBank and Kraus-Anderson Construction.

Peter Bodley is at [email protected]