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ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT: Building partnerships key to region's economy

BEMIDJI -- Supporting entrepreneurs and continuing regional partnerships were two themes that emerged from a discussion Tuesday about economic competitiveness in northwest Minnesota.

Representatives of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) conducted the session in Bemidji, seeking input from invited guests representing business, education and support agencies. Thirty people attended the meeting, one of several such DEED-sponsored events throughout northwest Minnesota.

"We're pretty proud of the state's economic health," Robin Sternberg, DEED's deputy commissioner, told the group. "We are one of the top five states in job growth. We have added 154,000 jobs since the recession."

Sternberg said DEED is evaluating how each of the state's seven regions is performing, and an effective way to do that is to conduct listening sessions like the one at Beltrami Electric Cooperative on Tuesday.

Discussion centered around developing and retaining a talented workforce, capitalizing on advances in technology and boosting trade.

Jorge Prince, chief financial officer for Bemidji's LaValley Industries, pointed to his company as an example of successful entrepreneurship. Jason LaValley started the company seven years ago by putting $50,000 of his own money into the development of a piece of hydraulic equipment that moves large pieces of pipe with precision around work sites.

The company employed five people in 2010. It has grown to 35 employees today, and Prince expects that number to increase to 100 in the next two years and 300 or more in three to five years.

Prince suggests that other entrepreneurs could emerge if given the proper support and opportunities.

"Somewhere there is another Jason LaValley sitting in a classroom," Prince said. "What are we doing to educate and encourage that person?"

Scott Turn, vice president of business banking at Security Bank USA in Bemidji, agreed that helping innovators succeed should be a priority.

"There are a lot of entrepreneurs in the area," Turn said. They need to learn "how to get it from an idea to a business."

Nancy Vyskocil, executive director of the Northwest Minnesota Foundation, highlighted her organization's priorities of natural, structural, social and economic assets. She said she hoped Tuesday's discussion would "confirm these priorities, that we're carrying the right message and spending our funds appropriately."

The Northwest Minnesota Foundation, based in Bemidji, serves 12 counties in the region.

"Our strength is in our partnerships," Vyskocil said. "We have limited resources, so if we don't partner we don't get things done."