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Economic gardening grows in Anoka County

  • Article by: PAUL LEVY
  • Star Tribune
  • August 14, 2012 - 11:00 PM

Anoka County wants to get into the business of helping entrepreneurs grow their businesses.

It's a year-long process called "economic gardening," and the program is designed to take businesses to the next level by introducing entrepreneurs to other businesspeople who have gone through what they're about to experience and guide them along.

"We show them how it's done, make it work and then leave," said Mark Lange of the Edward Lowe Foundation, the Florida-based operation that helped Hennepin County launch an economic gardening pilot program last year and recently began working with Anoka County. "We educate, demonstrate and help communities activate."

By dedicating $150,000 -- or approximately $10,000 for each of 15 businesses that qualify -- the county has launched a program in which it is "reaching out to the businesses we never hear from, or businesses we only read about when they announce they're moving to another area," said Karen Skepper, Anoka County's director of community and government relations.

There are no fees for businesses entering the county-sponsored program. The idea is that the businesses, the county and potential customers all will benefit.

The businesses must meet certain criteria to qualify, including having 99 or fewer employees.

"We bring the infrastructure so someone like Anoka County can jump in," said the Lowe Foundation's Lange. "The county pays for the program and, in return, establishes a culture for entrepreneurial growth.

"Anoka County is rewarded with job growth, tax revenues, increased wealth. The companies give back and build the communities. The payback spills to multiple levels."

From the ground up

Steven Daas, who owns the Maple Grove-based professional-services firm Global Tax Network, recently completed Hennepin County's 12-month pilot program. He said 15 CEOs of what he describes as "Stage 2" companies attended monthly meetings in which they discussed business issues and how each member settled problems. Some entrepreneurs, such as Erik Saltvold (a.k.a. Erik the Bike Man), talked about how they built their companies from the ground up, Daas said.

The Edward Lowe Foundation offered an e-mail list with 200 potential contacts, many of them being other entrepreneurs who have survived their own growing pains and can offer advice, Daas said. A foundation representative also offered tips concerning customer relations and described ways of customizing companies' internal systems, Daas said.

"I've been in two other CEO peer groups, but this one really meshed well," Daas said. "All the companies were similarly sized, in the same growth mode. The program was so focused on what we needed now."

The Edward Lowe Foundation, established 25 years ago, has an Internet site, YourEconomy.org, that offers a subscription service with tips from economic-growth professionals. The roundtable aspect of the program was introduced last year in Hennepin County, Lange said. Hennepin and Anoka counties are considered "program pioneers."

The Anoka County program was introduced earlier this month at the 3M Championship at the TPC Twin Cities golf course in Blaine. Sixty people attended a brief seminar.

"The hum of the business community was very strong," said Skepper, who is meeting with city council representatives to spread word of the program throughout the county.

"There are no catches to this," Skepper said. "We're not going to put competing businesses together. The discussions are open and frank.

"We're hoping entrepreneurs familiar with the program will spread the word to their peers. It's a program that will help develop a sense of loyalty throughout the community."

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419

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