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Help line answers businesses' questions

A Minnesota Chamber of Commerce-supported help line can refer business questions from loan availability to foreign trade opportunities.

Currently being tested in Bemidji, BusinessConnection offers help both through a toll-free number, 1-888-MINN-BIZ, and a Web site,

"We're actively promoting it in Grand Rapids, Bemidji, Brainerd, and a few other communities in northwestern Minnesota because it's really a work in progress," Bill Blazer, Minnesota Chamber senior vice president for public affairs and business development, said in an interview last week.

"There's no other state in the United States that has developed a Web site that's designed to make all of its business assistance efforts readily available to the client, Minnesota businesses," Blazer said. "There isn't a model we've been able to follow."

The system is being promoted in five northwest Minnesota cities, with the idea of expanding it statewide early in 2010, he said.

Either by phone or on the Web site, a business can leave a question which BusinessConnection hopes to return with a referral in 24 hours, he said.

Queries many include starting businesses, expanding businesses, business plans, legal structures, environmental permits, business loans, local permits, patents, insurance, finding employees, hiring employees, advertising, marketing, and more.

"The goal is to tell as many people about it in northwest Minnesota as we can, get them hopefully to go to the Web site and ask questions," Blazer said. "At the same time, we know that Minnesota businesses have questions about whether it's a state rule, or a state regulation, or a local requirement, and we want to answer those as quickly as possible because that's the way they will be able to grow and expand their businesses."

In the current economy, "there's so much more urgency about getting the answers to those questions, and we hope that the BusinessConnection will facilitate that and better utilize the resources that our state makes available to businesses that are trying to employ people and grow the state's economy."

The Web site has been active since March, Blazer said, and has had about 5,000 inquiries. "The most common inquiry from businesses is related to the stimulus package and what is in it available to Minnesota businesses, and it's virtue is that you type in 'stimulus package business,' it will list SBA programs, USDA programs.

"Hopefully it takes that alphabet soup of stimulus package programs and puts them in an order so that if you are a Minnesota business, you can see if one can work for you," Blazer added.

Blazer talked about BusinessConnection and the Chamber's Grow Minnesota! programs during Wednesday's state Department of Employment and Economic Development summit in Bemidji, which talked about a number of business programs and loan programs funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

The Minnesota Chamber and member Chambers of Commerce, including Bemidji, in the past year have worked with 125 companies in answering their specific questions about doing business in Minnesota during the Minnesota Chamber's annual 750 company business retention visits, Blazer said.

"We know that between our retention visits and the retention visits that the state Department of Employment and Economic Development does, we'll never get to every Minnesota company," he said. "We also know that our state has a vast array of resources available to help Minnesota businesses be successful in the state. Unfortunately, most of the companies don't know about the resources that are available, or they don't know how to navigate to get from their problem to a specific solution."

Blazer said that 99 percent of the problems businesses have with state and local policies, that there is a solution to it. The challenge for the company is to find the solution.

"We've been doing business retention visits for six years and we find that one out of every seven businesses we visit, the business has a question," Blazer said. "Our theory is that the businesses that we don't see are just as likely to have questions as the ones we do see."

Users typically leave a question for the automated service, but personal assistance is available on the phone line from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.

"Whether it's in a bad economy it ought to help them maybe weather the storm, in a good economy it'll help them grow even faster because in order to move on, they need to resolve some of these questions about doing business in Minnesota," Blazer said.

BusinessConnection is free to users. It is funded from a pass-through grants from the McKnight Foundation to Grow Minnesota! and DEED.