Retaining and expanding existing businesses is a crucial part of economic development in any community.

That's why all Wadena County cities got on board for a new initiative starting soon.

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The Wadena County Business Expansion and Retention Project is a multi-step program devised by the University of Minnesota to help businesses prosper. The program is a combination of surveys, data gathering, and analysis. Information extracted from communities like Wadena will be processed at the University of Minnesota and a report will be generated. With that information, city government will be able to implement changes and offer assistance to area business so they can continue to serve as the foundation of economic stability.

In the short term, the project will help area businesses to expand. In the long term, the BR & E project will allow smaller businesses to compete in the ever growing global marketplace. Mom and Pop shops struggling to stay relevant in the constantly evolving economic environment will greatly benefit the project. These small organizations are interwoven into small communities, often synonymous with them. Helping them and myriad of other businesses is at the core of the BR & E project.

"Healthy Businesses mean a healthy community," said Katie Heppner, organizer of the elaborate program. To her, this project is a means of helping the small man, the businesses that have always been there and have become a staple of small town living. People always expect these stores or shops to always be there ... until liquidation signs appear on the storefront.

"They deserve our support," said Heppner, while explaining the finer points of the project. These businesses offer services that are one with the communities that host them. This project recognizes there value and seeks to ensure their survival.

"A bird in the hand is better then two in the bush," said Dean Uselman, one of the taskforce members assigned to interview business owners. He hopes the project will culminate in a steady maintainable growth in area business, and just as importantly, a rise in employment. Uselman cited many examples of how the project could benefit Wadena, stating, "last thing we want to see is a big going out of business banner like the one in front of Family Dollar." Uselman and members of the task force want to help people through the rough times.

The first step is research. The project will initially inform the communities that will benefit from the project. Then a leadership team is organized. That leadership team forms a task force, which is comprised of individuals from all the surrounding communities. From there, volunteers meet with businesses one on one. This conversation is the point of contact where red flags are identified. The main purpose of this interview is to gather information for a the future university analysis. Red flags could be anything from the city needing to change its snow plow procedures to catastrophic financial troubles. This phase of the project is already underway, with the majority of the data gathering taking place Feb.-April, 2019.

The second step is to prioritize based on the data collected. The University of Minnesota will analyze the interview data and write a research report. This research report is a summary of the surveys and will be used to help the county aid in business growth. This analysis will also give a report to business owners on an individual level. These reports could identify a plethora of issues ranging from a lack of daycare to issues with workforce housing. The process of compiling the data will require a few months with main priorities being set in the fall of 2019.

The third step is implementation, which will take place in the winter of 2019. This action phase of the project is when all the work pays off. Leadership prioritizes tasks and devise a plan to help area businesses.

The Wadena County Business Retention and Expansion Project will serve the communities of Staples, Verndale, Wadena, Sebeka, and Menahga while also assisting smaller towns like Aldrich, Nimrod, and Bluegrass. The entire process will take close to a year. In order for the project to stay on track, leadership will work side by side with university of Minnesota educators. This collaboration will make leadership accountable for the success of the overall project.

This project was fully supported by Wadena County Commissioners. Funding for the project has been secured through support from the Initiative Foundation, Wadena County, Sourcewell, and the Economic Alliance.