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Rep. Pete Stauber hears concerns from Bemidji’s small business community

U.S. Representative Pete Stauber held a listening session on Thursday in Bemidji focused on small businesses, where he heard concerns ranging from labor shortages to challenges in forestry.

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U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber speaks during a small business listening session on Thursday, Feb. 16, 2023, at the Mayflower building in Bemidji.
Madelyn Haasken / Bemidji Pioneer

BEMIDJI — U.S. Representative Pete Stauber held a listening session in Bemidji on Thursday to hear the concerns of the area’s small business owners.

Hosted by Greater Bemidji, members of various local industries joined the event to share their challenges with Stauber, who represents Minnesota's 8th Congressional District, hoping that as a member of the small business committee, he might bring their concerns back to Washington, D.C.

“Small businesses are the backbone of our communities,” Stauber said. “These are people that risk everything in small business and live that American dream.”

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U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber addresses attendees during a small business listening session on Thursday, Feb. 16, 2023, at the Mayflower building in Bemidji.
Madelyn Haasken / Bemidji Pioneer

He opened the listening session with a question for those in attendance, outlining his focus for the discussion.

“I want to know the one regulation in your respective business that you think is out of bounds and hurtful to the development and success of your business,” Stauber prompted.

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While later in the discussion business owners brought up struggles with some regulations, the initial challenge they brought forward was difficulties finding employees amid the ongoing worker shortage.

“(The biggest challenge) is labor,” said Tracy Pogue of Kraus-Anderson Construction. “We’re not the only firm or the only employer in the community that needs folks.”

Jim Bensen, the former president of Bemidji State University, expanded on this by linking challenges in finding a workforce to the successful growth of businesses in Bemidji.

“Right since COVID hit, we’ve created more jobs than Duluth, St. Cloud and Mankato put together,” Bensen shared. “When you talk about hard-to-get labor, it’s also a time of a successful community creating more jobs.”

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Jim Bensen speaks during a small business listening session with U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber on Thursday, Feb. 16, 2023, at the Mayflower building in Bemidji.
Madelyn Haasken / Bemidji Pioneer

According to data from Greater Bemidji, over the past 10 years Mankato's workforce grew by 3.1%, St. Cloud's by 2.6% and Duluth's declined by 2.1%. In comparison, Bemidji's workforce has increased over 10% during that same time frame.

Bensen explained that as more jobs are created, competition for potential employees increases. Other business owners shared concerns about keeping the employees they already have and worries about being able to afford proposed laws on the state level like mandatory paid family leave.

“If we have to pay potentially for someone to be gone for 24 weeks, we have to hire someone to fill that position,” shared Molly Miller, who owns Patterson’s Clothing in downtown Bemidji. “We might not be able to afford both those people on our staff.”

Justin Beldo, the community services director at EON, Inc., shared the challenges his organization faced as they try to secure funding that would improve their ability to pay their employees a living wage.

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“I primarily work in the disability services sector, and that’s got federal funding and state funding,” he shared. “A lot of what’s backing us up right now is (trying) to pay our direct support professionals a fair wage so that they’re not also relying on federal and state assistance.”

Beldo specifically advocated for a piece of legislation called the Direct Support Professionals Act, which he explained could help organizations like his get funding and better compensate their employees so they aren’t reliant on tax-funded assistance programs.

“We could pay our direct support professionals a living wage, which would attract more people to provide our folks with disabilities better services,” Beldo said. “If I can help people have a living wage, then they aren’t using other tax resources and our community is going to be better supported.”

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Attendees hear from U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber during a small business listening session on Thursday, Feb. 16, 2023, at the Mayflower building in Bemidji.
Madelyn Haasken / Bemidji Pioneer

Pete Aube, a manager at Potlatch Lumber Mill and a member of the Minnesota Forest Resources Council, spoke to Stauber on a longstanding challenge facing the Minnesota lumber industry.

“We need markets for the wood that’s perishing. We can create biofuels from that material, (but) the one thing we need is help to level the playing field in the definition of what a renewable biomass is,” Aube said.

The current definition, Aube explained, puts Minnesota’s lumber markets at a disadvantage and drives the biofuel industry to the southeast of the United States.

“We are hampered by that definition, and we’ve been working on it for years,” Aube shared. “We can compete from an infrastructure basis with anyone, but not with a definition that works against us.”

Stauber shared he had been having conversations on this topic with the previous director of the Environmental Protection Agency, but that those had stalled under the current director.

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As the listening session drew to a close, Stauber reiterated his commitment to supporting small businesses on a federal level.

“I want to help you succeed,” Stauber said. “My goal is to help you remain seen at the federal level. We can do better, and we will do better, but it takes political will to do it.”

Nicole Ronchetti is a reporter at the Bemidji Pioneer, focusing on local government and community health.
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