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Survey says: Volunteer effort could pay off for county businesses

Katie Heppner, executive director of The Economic Alliance shares some highlights of her first year on the job at the annual economic development event Thursday in Sebeka. Michael Johnson/Pioneer Journal

A collaboration of volunteers, county and city staff performed a near record-breaking feat recently when they surveyed 98 businesses in the region.

The hope is that in coming months, each city in Wadena County will learn some important information to help the community businesses perform at their best based on results of those business retention and expansion surveys.

The survey was coordinated mainly by Katie Heppner, executive director of The Economic Alliance, formerly known as West Central Economic Development Association.

She sees this work as an opportunity to give some help to the middle ground, this area of ground surrounded by lakes areas.

Heppner worked with about 90 volunteers to make the survey the most successful survey of businesses since a survey was completed in Owatonna in 2002, where 100 businesses were surveyed. The effort included two volunteers going to each business from February through April. One volunteer asked questions while another took notes.

Following the surveys, red flag meetings were to be held in April to point to any immediate issues that could be tended to before results were sent off to the University of Minnesota. Next a task force retreat is planned in July , a community commencement in the fall and projects are expected to be implemented in October into 2020.

Heppner said the University of Minnesota staff will work with them through their process, which is what separates this project from others. There's an accountability to it.

Wadena, Verndale, Sebeka, Menahga and Staples each have their own groups who led the charge and a subcommittee was formed to cover about 26 businesses outside of those cities including smaller communities like Aldrich, Bluegrass and Nimrod.

The surveys dove into questions meant to identify needs by the existing businesses to retain those business and perhaps help them expand.

Some of the volunteers spoke about their experiences of those surveys at the event on Thursday. Wadena's economic development director Dean Uselman said while some businesses were reluctant to take part, the ones that did were genuine in their answering of questions. While not able to share which businesses or the specific situations, Uselman did say one issue that came up in his talks was as simple as the location of a curb cut.

"Not a big deal, it will be easy to fix," Uselman said. "Sometimes it's just a small thing and sometimes it's much more important."

He felt it allowed the businesses to share small or large issues and get those resolved through the appropriate channels.

Kyle Davis, an area real estate appraiser, surveyed five businesses within the city of Wadena. He shared that the business owners knew the survey would take time and they were willing to take the time to share the ups and downs of business. He added that while the information was confidential, if the business felt they had an immediate need, they could be contacted to seek a resolution quickly.

"They liked that people from the community were taking an initiative to hear what their concerns are and have an outlet for those concerns, and a way to help address those concerns," Davis said

Erich Heppner, student life director at Central Lakes College (and husband of Katie), said he worked with a team of students from the college to complete the surveys.

"It was a great learning experience," E. Heppner said. "They enjoyed doing it and it sounded like the business owners enjoyed having them come and do it."

"It shows that there's a hunger for fixing things," Heppner said of the feelings from business people.

He added that the fact that there is a plan in place to make sure this survey gets back to the communities and some real followup will be done makes it a worthwhile effort.

"The fact that there is going to be results makes a big difference, then the next time they need to go back and survey some people, those doors will probably be open because they saw results," E. Heppner said.

While the surveys are being processed, another economic development opportunity is coming at 11 a.m. May 29 at M State in Wadena. This gathering will take a look at the trifecta of issues that many communities struggle with—workforce, housing and daycare. The gathering will be most helpful to area business owners, managers, human resource professionals and community leaders.

Visit this link to find out more about the BR & E project.

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