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GrowBemidji seeks companies to locate in Bemidji

An intensive effort to recruit new business to Bemidji -- the kind with high-paying jobs -- launched slowly but even one solid hit could lead to dozens of new jobs.

An intensive effort to recruit new business to Bemidji -- the kind with high-paying jobs -- launched slowly but even one solid hit could lead to dozens of new jobs.

GrowBemidji, launched last November with a flurry and talk of sending 1,000 postcards a year to prospective businesses is germinating slowly, Larry Young, executive director of the Joint Economic Development Commission, said Tuesday morning.

"We've been doing this for a month and a half now," Young told the Bemidji Sunrise Rotary Club. "We have already received calls from one company -- we had a visitation in the Twin Cities, we had them up last week all day on a visitation of this community."

The firm is in the aeronautics field, working with the likes of Airbus and Boeing, and would make use of the Bemidji Regional Airport, Young said. It would create $50,000 a year jobs, if it locates here, he added.

"You cast the net pretty wide, but what we're looking at are companies that offer well-paying jobs, companies related to high tech," Young said. "Our goal is, we've been told from this effort, that we would have one or two companies locating in this community on an annual basis."

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GrowBemidji is a concerted effort to draw a specific kind of firm to Bemidji, exhibiting a certain profile, Young said. And the recruitment follows an escalating pitch, starting with a simple postcard and working up to a Bemidji DVD -- along with a DVD player to entice viewing it -- to a Paul Bunyan-sized red-and-black plaid lumberjack shirt.

To encourage site visits, GrowBemidji will even fly in corporate officials to spend the day looking things over in Bemidji, as was done last week, Young said.

"It's an organized process, it's a measurable process," Young said of GrowBemidji, "and it seems to be working as the call came in to us -- we did not make the call out to someone."

But that doesn't mean JEDC's recruitment relies totally on GrowBemidji. It will still make calls to companies it has targeted.

"We've identified about 50 companies that we're going to be calling that we think have high probability of maybe wanting to locate here, so I'm going to be on the phone," Young said.

GrowBemidji is a three-year, $90,000 effort involving a host of local agencies including the JEDC, Northwest Minnesota Foundation, Bemidji Regional Airport, Headwaters Regional Development Commission, Bemidji State University, state Departments of Employment and Economic Development and Transportation's Office of Aeronautics, Paul Bunyan Telephone, city of Bemidji and Beltrami County.

The offices of U.S. Reps. Collin Peterson, DFL-7th District, and Jim Oberstar, DFL-8th District, have also helped, Young said.

"We're finding out that really to be actively involved in this process, you have to spend money," Young said. "For example, for the company we brought up last week we sent a plane down to pick them up, bring them up for the day and they were back in their office by 3 o'clock."

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Just inviting company officials to Bemidji isn't enough, he said, as a four or five hour drive usually means two days out of their office and not an offer usually taken.

The idea started more than two years ago when officials were seeking ways to promote Bemidji Regional Airport, which is quickly becoming a northern Minnesota gem with new longer jet-capable runways and state-of-the-art instrument landing system.

From there stemmed the thought of selling something broader, the entire community, he said. A focus on high-tech firms that need the airport was a natural to promote, with three industrial parks ready for anything, including high-tech parks at the airport and nearby on U.S. Highway 71 North.

"One of our filters is for companies that have shown growth over the last five years, and smaller companies," Young said. "Let's not go after a company that employs 4,000 or 5,000 people as that's totally unrealistic. But companies of 100 or 150 employees are good-sized companies."

The idea is for those companies to spin off and create something here with 100 to 150 employees, utilizing mostly local labor, Young said, not necessarily relocating that 150-worker firm in total to Bemidji.

"Also, let's look at companies that have some relationship to airport services, to airport activities," he said. "That doesn't necessarily mean they're tied into airlines, but maybe they have personnel that have to travel a lot and so they need to be close to the airport. Maybe they supply some kind of services to the airport."

And narrowing the scope still gives GrowBemidji potential companies in Chicago and Kansas City, as well as Minneapolis/St. Paul and parts of Canada, he said.

The Airport Technology Park, Bemidji Technology Park and Bemidji Industrial Park are all JOBZ sites, Young said, the state program where locating businesses can tap into tax incentives for a number of years. They include no property taxes and no sales tax on equipment purchases.

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GrowBemidji starts with sending up to 1,000 postcards to targeted firms within a 700-mile radius of Bemidji, Young Said. The cards play off a theme of everything grows bigger in Bemidji, including their business. One card as a baseball player buried under a boulder-sized baseball, a second has cows grazing under Babe the Blue Ox's feet, and the third a stringer of normal walleye and one huge Bemidji walleye.

The DVD features a profile of Bemidji and discussions of quality of place and work in Bemidji from locals Andy Wells, Jim Bensen and Dean Crotty. They also highlight transportation and technology opportunities in Bemidji not seen elsewhere in similar-sized rural communities.

The DVD and player will go to about 25 or 30 firms that first got the postcard and then exhibited an interest for something more.

"Lastly, as we start courting these people a little bit, we do something that's going to be pretty unique for them as well," Young said. "The last state of recruitment is to give them a Bemidji memento, courtesy of Bemidji Woolen Mills."

The huge lumberjack plaid is large enough to ensure no one can actually wear it, he said, "and this is something they will not throw away. It'll probably end up in an office conference room or something like that."

The marketing was done by a hired consultant, Anchor Marketing of Grand Forks, N.D., which Young said has been notified it has won an advertising Addy Award for the campaign.

Asked about another recruiting effort, that of Dreamcatcher Aviation, an aircraft refurbishing company, Young said local officials continue to work to bring the firm to the Bemidji Regional Airport.

"They are still in the process of raising money," Young said. "They had it all identified and then with the gyrations in the stock market, one of the investors who was heavily invested in certain stocks lost quite a bit of money and he stepped aside."

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As a result, Dreamcatcher investors are looking to replace the $6 million he pulled, he said. "We've been working with that company for 2½ years -- they have the money for the buildings, they have the money for all their equipment, but this potentially is a $50 million project."

Young said the JEDC is in contact with the firm on a daily basis. "Until it's signed on the dotted line, it's still a potential."

On the Web:

www.GrowBemidji.com

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