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Challenge issued to Cass County

WALKER — Michael Drager, University of Minnesota Extension community development specialist, challenged Cass County Economic Development Corporation (EDC) Thursday night to look toward what could be in the county’s economic future.

Cass EDC conducted its annual meeting and dinner Thursday at Northern Lights Convention Center at Walker.

Drager said Cass’s EDC public-private partnership is unique in the state, with economic development programs elsewhere either public supported or business supported.

“Obviously it is an organization that does good work,” he said, noting the per capita income increase here in the last 15 years since the EDC became a nonprofit corporation. Cass is back to within 30 jobs of the pre-recession employment level, he said.

While the county is still at 7.6 percent unemployment, the difference is added potential worker population since the recession began, he said.

A business survey conducted in 1992 showed businesses here saw a need for labor force training. Today, Cass EDC has partnered with Central Lakes College to offer college courses at Pine River, which are tailored to employer needs here.

Of the 42 businesses responding to that survey, 67 percent remain in business and have active websites, Drager said.

He noted Extension service has worked with the county and Leech Lake Reservation over the last 20 years to help foster economic improvement.

Extension is in the process of hiring a person to be based in Brainerd to serve as an economic educator.

In addition, Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development also plans to hire a new economic development specialist to be based at Bemidji, he added. Both will be available to assist Cass County businesses, he said.

Drager suggested Cass EDC consider what could be in the county’s future business climate by considering financing for businesses, more equity of opportunity, creating jobs, reducing poverty, buying local programs, focusing on manufacturing, attracting new business, encouraging entrepreneurs, sustaining development, helping existing businesses, continuing to improve the workforce and regional cooperation,

Dave Johnson, retired Anderson Brothers Construction executive and a former EDC president, outlined the EDC history and impact the organization has had on Cass County’s business climate.

Cass County started the EDC as an arm of county government about 1992, with two succeeding directors named to run the agency. Initial focus was on promoting the tourism industry.

While that focus did lead to some improved community events, it also seemed to duplicate what chambers of commerce were already doing and it failed to address the rest of the county’s economy, he said.

Johnson served as EDC president during the years that led to the EDC becoming a nonprofit agency in 1997, independent from county government, but having some county financial support. It relied in those years upon dedicated support from business owners in the community to give it direction and operated for a time without employing a director.

In 2004, the nonprofit EDC hired Gail Leverson as director and switched its focus to job creation.

Since then, Leverson reports, more than 70 businesses have used Cass EDC services to complete business expansion or start-up efforts. In a 2012 survey, she said, those businesses report having 665 employees earning an average of $13.28 per hour. The property value of those businesses is $55,675,700.

Businesses assisted in 2012 cover a range of industries, with 37 percent being retail, 33 percent manufacturing, 15 percent service, 9 percent health care and 6 percent other.

The current nine-member board represents businesses from the southern Cass County border to Cass Lake. EDC has about 120 members representing individuals, businesses, cities, townships, chambers of commerce, state and federal agencies and Cass County.

About a dozen businesses obtained EDC help in 2012 to expand or open a new business. Leverson provides help writing a business plan, connecting business owners with financing options and with marketing.

Two of those business owners described at Thursday’s meeting the assistance they obtained for their businesses.

Travis Kelly, owner of Jentra Tools at Backus, described how his patented Cheatah tool makes leveling a door opening a one-step operation for both vertical and horizontal planes. The EDC helped him through the patent process, assisted him with a business plan and helped him secure financing.

“Gail (Leverson’s) business planning skills were very helpful during our start-up. We wouldn’t have been able to do it without her and EDC’s help,” he said. They now are using EDC’s help to expand their marketing.

Arnold Volker started Next Innovations with his partner John Zacher in 2002.

They built one of five manufacturing plants in the Walker Industrial Park in 2005 and employed 85 people there before the recession hit.

Following Zacher’s death in an accident last year, Volker, now chief executive officer of the firm, said he turned to EDC for help to seek new markets for the business.

His firm reassessed which products were profitable, which ones should be eliminated and what new products they could create.

Today, Next Innovations has re-grown from a low of 25 employees during the recession to 30. They are tapping new markets in Germany. They have a contract for some of the glass work in Southdale renovations in Edina. They have products for sale in 10 of 12 Amazon warehouses. They are selling to Busch Gardens and SeaWorld.

They do engraving, decorative finishes on glass and metal and make laser cut metal products.