Randy Stenger knows how to move mountains — or at least big piles of dirt — and offers customers the chance to do that and more with excavators and bulldozers at Extreme Sandbox, his "extreme adventure" company in Hastings.

But when a financing gap threatened to slow the company's growth, he turned to Dakota County's Open to Business program and business adviser Laurie Crow for assistance.

"We were dead in the water there for a moment," Stenger said. "We had all the approvals but ultimately we were just a little bit short. I was able to engage [Open to Business] at the end and get through their program some funding to fill up that gap. I know I would have gotten there, but it would have taken longer and been more difficult."

Open to Business offers free business counseling to prospective and current Dakota County businesses and to county residents who have businesses elsewhere. It's a partnership between Dakota County Community Development Agency, Dakota County cities and the nonprofit Metropolitan Consortium of Community Developers.

The program, entering its third year in Dakota County, provided nearly $327,000 in loans to Dakota County businesses and residents from January 2013 through September 2014, the most recent period for which data was available. Open to Business helped leverage five bank loans for more than $1.4 million and served more than 300 new and existing businesses in that same period.

Companies that Open to Business assisted have created more than 50 jobs since the program's inception in Dakota County, Crow said. The most common types of business ideas she sees involve services, from day-care centers and auto repair shops to retail and restaurants.

Stenger, who had worked as a corporate retail consultant, founded Extreme Sandbox in 2012 on a test basis, inviting customers to navigate a course and complete tasks behind the wheel of a bulldozer, excavator or other piece of heavy equipment. As it proved popular, especially as a team-building exercise for business executives, Stenger decided to buy the 10 acres of land he had been leasing and build a small office building there.

At the last minute, however, Stenger came up some $30,000 short. He had put up his own money and what he got from the bank and Small Business Administration loans. Stenger, who had gotten some early advice from Crow, returned to her at the suggestion of his bank.

"Open to Business was a saving grace," Stenger said. "They had additional funds, some resources to apply through their program. They were able to recognize the potential for this new business and that's where they stepped in."

Boosting city resources

While Open to Business can help entrepreneurs manage gaps in their financing, as in the case of Extreme Sandbox, it also helps cities offer resources for businesses.

"The cities want to be able to support all of their businesses, big and small," Crow said. "They just don't have the knowledge, connections and infrastructure to do so. A city certainly can answer questions on licensing or zoning but any time it comes to 'Will this business succeed?' or 'Is this a good idea?' it gets a little precarious for them. As a neutral third party, we can have an objective opinion to help start those businesses or potentially expand them."

Crow said she wanted to remind owners of existing businesses that the program is there for them as well.

"It's OK at any level to ask for help," she said. "No question is too small."

City officials can refer calls they get from people asking about business plans or bank financing to Open to Business, said Rob Smolund, the program's manager and a business adviser.

"If the cities were to hire someone, it would be so expensive," Smolund said. "We figured out where the economies of scale let us create a program … the cities will buy into with county support. Now they can feature it and own it as a program to serve their residents and businesses and yet we provide all the work."

Open to Business offers more than any individual city in the county could offer, said David Olson, Lakeville's community and economic development director.

"They provide access to capital, they provide access to technical services, they have relationships with lenders, none of which the city is set up to do," Olson said.

Bruce Nordquist, Apple Valley's community development director, said Open to Business can even help businesses in the very beginning stages.

"The Minnesota-based Fortune 500 corporations, and we have several of them, many of them started in a garage or in a small facility and now are corporate leaders in the Twin Cities," he said "We've had this notion of, 'Where is the next one, who might it be?' I think we want to foster an environment for allowing that to occur."

Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Woodbury. His e-mail is todd_nelson @mac.com.