Mobilizing communities to keep and grow local business


It’s always big news when a new business comes to town. It means new jobs and social energy, and almost everyone can get behind that. But in most communities, research shows that as many as 86 percent of new jobs are created by existing businesses.

For more than two decades, University of Minnesota Extension has helped communities capitalize on that fact through the Business Retention & Expansion program (BR&E). This nationally recognized effort has served dozens of small towns, cities and counties across Minnesota.

“Our program is all about community,” says Michael Darger, director of BR&E. “Our approach is unique because we help the people of a community build broad-based support for local business development.”

While most economic development programs include the “usual suspects” — local business leaders — when planning for business needs, BR&E reaches much further into the community.

“In addition to local businesses, the chamber of commerce, and the local economic development professional, we bring in elected and appointed government officials, people from K-12 and higher education, and many other sectors of the community,” says Darger.

This unique approach helps build widespread energy, enthusiasm and support.

BR&E uses a three-step process to develop the local economy. The process rolls out over 12-18 months and involves scores of people:

1. Research

The BR&E program staff assists the community with organizing a leadership team that sets goals and mobilizes a larger task force. This group learns how to survey local businesses using a tool developed by the BR&E. They visit local businesses and collect information on what those businesses like, don’t like, need, and are concerned about regarding the community.

This step entails the collection of valuable data, while promoting goodwill across the community and building social capital.

2. Prioritize

Next, the task force follows up on any “red flag concerns.” These are local issues requiring an immediate response, such as the pending loss of a business or layoffs. Meanwhile, the BR&E staff analyzes the survey data and prepares a report suggesting ideas for the task force.

During a retreat, the task force chooses three to five priority projects to implement. BR&E crafts a summary report, and the broader community is invited to learn about the priorities during a “commencement to implementation” gathering.

“This meeting is a gateway for the community,” says Darger. “It heralds the end of the research and prioritizing and the beginning of work.”

3. Implement

Finally, the task force begins to implement the priority projects. This is when the enthusiasm developed during steps 1 and 2 begins to pay off. During this phase, projects get under way as BR&E staff members support the leadership team, evaluate results, and prepare reports to document progress.

Local business leaders have noted the success of the process, and evaluation studies have helped BR&E hone the process to a fine edge. The program has also earned numerous awards and honors that attest to its quality.

“Our program is educational and results oriented,” says Darger. “It’s about creating a greater community-wide appreciation of and involvement with local businesses.”

Free resources online

There are a host of free tools on the BR&E website, including sample reports and survey instruments, a video overview, and case studies that explain projects and processes.

In coming years, BR&E hopes to make its survey questions available so communities can adapt them. The program staff also plans to offer a course on community economic development that involves both face-to-face and online teaching.

Learn more

Post by Vincent Hyman, a freelance writer based in St. Paul, Minn.

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