EDC is one stop shop for budding Cass County businesses

Whether manufacturing, restaurants, hotels, bakeries or even franchises, potential business owners have turned to the Cass County Economic Development Corporation (EDC) for 17 years to gather funding and resources for their business needs.

Donny Dabill lines up gusset plates used to manufacture floor trusses. Photo by Travis Grimler
Donny Dabill lines up gusset plates used to manufacture floor trusses. Photo by Travis Grimler

Whether manufacturing, restaurants, hotels, bakeries or even franchises, potential business owners have turned to the Cass County Economic Development Corporation (EDC) for 17 years to gather funding and resources for their business needs.

It can be daunting to start a business. Planning for success, gathering funds and securing a location are not easy tasks, but the EDC has the experience, knowledge and connections that many new Cass County businesses have depended on to make development easier. The end goal of the group is to bring more work into Cass County.

"More jobs, more family-sustaining jobs. Year-round jobs for residents. I'd like to see the unemployment rate lowered. I'd like to see it be less seasonal and more stable," said Cass County EDC Executive Director Gail Leverson. "I always tell the board that one of your neighbors or friends will have a good job five years from now because of the work we did at this board meeting."

Before 1997 Cass County created a position with that same goal in mind, but the model was different. At the time, the position was a county-owned entity and governed by the same rules as any government office right down to privacy laws.

"They started talking about economic development at the county level. They tried having a county employee, but it was too hard to operate like that because everything was part of a public document law. So businesses couldn't share what they needed to share to get a project done. Taxes, financial statements, hopes, dreams and long-term relationships were difficult to do as a county department." Leverson said.


In addition, someone with a current job, but considering opening their own business, would have had to make their intentions known possibly years before the business became a reality, which could possibly put their employment at risk.

It was quickly realized that economic assistance could be more effectively given by a private business.

"All those private documents you show me to help you start your business would become public documents if I was a public employee. As long as I'm a private employee, they're just ours," Leverson said.

At first, the county moved economic development to the Housing and Redevelopment Authority.

"That kind of didn't work either. housing and economic development really are two different animals," Leverson said.

The Cass County EDC private 501c3 was then formed in 1997 following a model similar to the Brainerd Lakes Area Economic Development Corporation (BLAEDC). Under this model, private documents remain private from beginning to end.

When Leverson became director in 2004, the EDC was smaller than it is today. It has since grown in funding and personnel.

"When I started working in 2004 I was a two-day-a-week person. That was how much money they had, and they didn't have any members at all when I started working with them," Leverson said. "We started doing a membership drive once a year and I gradually increased to a full-time position and we brought on an office manager to take on our accounting needs and our inner office needs so I can be out working with businesses more."


"I take care of our grants. I facilitate them. I make sure all our reporting is done on time and take care of the office, make appointments and stuff for her," said current Office Manager Lisa Stenzel.

The EDC also contracts with an economic development consultant named Julie Hofius, who assists the company when Leverson has multiple clients to consult with at the same time. In addition, the EDC also works with a board of directors, made up of paid members with varying areas of knowledge and expertise.

"They ensure the mission, vision and goals of the corporation are met. They maintain legal responsibility and they provide fiduciary oversight for the corporation. They are all professionals in their own field." Leverson said.

Leverson said with her current staff she works with as many as 25 potential business owners at the same time. Some of those clients are from out of state, but all of them are considering business ownership in Cass County.

As a National Development Council certified Economic Development Finance Professional, Leverson's services are highly in demand. She knows the ins and outs of business planning and financing. Some of her most popular services involve guiding businesses in applying to federal and state programs, municipal revolving loans and tax increment finance programs.

"I work with them one-on-one to be their assistant to help them put the project together. So, when we get done with our plan we have a loan packet. This probably takes a couple years to get the whole (business) plan done," Leverson said. "When you work one-on-one with them you don't pass them off to other agencies. You work with them from the beginning to the end."

Leverson's planning services go beyond financing. She helps determine feasibility for business plans and connects potential business owners with resources they need to bring their plan together.

"Still 50 percent of the people I work with have a great idea, but it's not profitable yet. We work on them for a while," Leverson said.


To top it off, these services are free. The Cass County EDC is a membership-funded corporation, meaning the company makes its money from membership fees.

"If you want an economic developer, you have to pay for it. Economic development is not a state mandated service of any type. Membership is 50 percent of our revenue," Leverson said. "We also get a donation from the county. That's supposed to be about 25 percent of our annual revenue. The rest is grants, contracts, things I can work out. It's always tempting to look for one source of revenue, but it's not wise. When planning a business it's kind of like having one customer."

With the help of the EDC, approximately 70 businesses have either started or expanded in Cass County. According to the EDC's tally, by 2013 those businesses had created 649 jobs with an average wage of $12.56.

Many of these businesses are listed on the EDC's list of "Success Stories" on their website, Some names include the Bear Pause Theater in Hackensack, for which Leverson helped secure funding and a Tax Increment Financing plan. Deep Portage Learning Center used the EDC's services to secure a $136,000 grant for an environmentally sound heating system. When Eveland's, Inc. Scamp Trailer Sales lost its facilities to a fire, the EDC helped them secure funding to reconstruct the business.

"We've been helped a couple times. The first time was when we had a fire burn us down in 2006. Gail helped us get loans through the bank and the Central Minnesota Initiative Foundation. She helped us get a low interest loan through the city of Backus as well. That was a big help," said Scamp Trailer Sales Owner and President Kent Eveland. "She helped us with some of the permitting and stuff like that. Then, when we rebuilt our welding shop this last year, she helped us with some Tax Increment Financing."

In Pine River, Trussworthy Components Inc. acquired financing and JOBZ designation with help from the EDC. Assistance continued through hard times.

"When we started up it was right when the housing market plummeted. The timing was terrible. It was very tough for us, we almost didn't make it because of that. So I looked to the EDC for help with what I could do to cut costs. What are the benchmarks for an industry like ours. She helped with that," said Trussworthy Components Owner and President Craig Anderson.

Most recently the EDC assisted Northern Sales and Manufacturing in acquiring financing to expand Ice Castle fish house production from Montevideo to Pine River. Businesses throughout the county have utilized the services of the Cass County EDC.


Leverson's expertise is respected among the businesses she has helped.

"More than anything, I think she has the connections and that's invaluable when it comes to knowing who to talk to. Where to go for funding and those types of things," Anderson said.

"Gail is really good at knowing what programs are out there. She's really good at helping you fill out the paperwork for them. She's really a fantastic resource for that kind of thing," said Eveland.

The EDC isn't just about attracting new business to the area and expanding manufacturing. Leverson also works hard to keep old businesses in operation. When Pine River Bakery owners Bob and Emily Fulton decided to retire, Leverson reached out to Superior, Wis., to Julie and John Sigafus who purchased the business in June, 2014.

It's all about job retention and creation. Though Leverson does a large amount of the leg work behind the EDC, she appreciates the members that make it possible.

"We have to thank all of our members for providing funding for our organization and keeping with it for a long time. That's the support that keeps us going," Leverson said.

Travis Grimler began work at the Echo Journal Jan. 2 of 2013 while the publication was still split in two as the Pine River Journal and Lake Country Echo. He is a full time reporter/photographer/videographer for the paper and operates primarily out of the northern stretch of the coverage area (Hackensack to Jenkins).
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