A recent survey of 27 Coon Rapids businesses found most are growing and hiring, but some say they are having trouble finding qualified employees and others say they may have to expand elsewhere because the city is almost fully developed.

The business retention survey "gives us a snapshot of where the city stands and what the issues are," said Marc Nevinski, Coon Rapids' community development director. He noted that city staff have visited employers for years to develop relationships but said this program "is much more data-driven."

The 27 employers, including 14 manufacturers, surprised analysts by rating the city as a better place to work than to live, the opposite of findings in six other metro-area cities that have used the same University of Minnesota retention program in the past decade.

One question asked the employers, "What is your overall opinion of your community as a place to live?" Coon Rapids earned an average rating of 3.17, in the "fair" range, compared with 4.10 in the other six cities, which include Blaine, Eagan and Vadnais Heights. A rating of 5 is "excellent."

The survey results were presented last week at Anoka Ramsey Community College to city and business leaders involved in the retention and expansion program. The program was overseen by University extension service researchers who prepared the questionnaire and trained a task force of volunteers who interviewed the 27 business executives and owners last fall.

The next step in the three-year program will be for a 30-member task force to further review, prioritize and begin implementing ideas to encourage businesses to stay put or expand in the city. The task force includes volunteers from Anoka Ramsey Community College, Mercy Hospital, the city and Steinwall Inc.; owner, Maureen Steinwall, chairs the retention program leadership team.

About 50 businesses were asked to participate in the survey, Nevinski said. The 27 that did take part are not a random, statistically significant sample, but present a clear picture of concerns and views of a group that employs 4,125 workers, about 17 percent of the city's 24,563 jobs, said consultant Mike Darger. He is a University extension specialist in community economics.

The program "is a good way of engaging the business community to strengthen the connection between business and City Hall," said Matt Brown, a city development specialist.

Among the other findings:

• Asked for their overall opinion about doing business in Coon Rapids, on a scale of 1 to 5, employers responded with an average score of 3.52. The university called that "relatively low" compared to the average of 3.91 for the other six metro cities surveyed.

• Nineteen of the businesses plan to expand, 11 of them in a new location. The 27 employers added 358 jobs in the past three years, including 300 full-time jobs.

• None of the companies plans to downsize or close.

• Seventy percent of the firms rated their employees' "attitude toward work" as above average. However, the average rating of 4.03 was lower than the average attitude score of 4.34 from 20 other cities that have been surveyed since 1990 in the U retention program.

The U consultants suggested a number of ideas to the group of business and community leaders at last week's meeting. The group chose six ideas that it wants to start implementing, including holding a business summit or appreciation events, continuing redevelopment efforts, helping firms maximize their space use, and exploring whether the city could offer matching grants to businesses that work with Anoka Ramsey Community College to provide customized job-skills training.

The city paid $3,000 of the $15,000 cost of the U program; business sponsors, led by Connexus Energy, covered the rest. Among the firms surveyed were: Hom Furniture, YMCA, Keller Williams Classic Realty, Berry Plastics and John Roberts Co.