COMMENTARY: Economic development is a race for talent

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Dave Hengel
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At Greater Bemidji, our mission is to drive development and promote prosperity in the greater Bemidji region. Ultimately, all we do is targeted toward growing the tax base, creating jobs and increasing the economic well-being of the region and our residents. Our ability to grow our economy has a direct effect on community health and wellness, educational attainment and a whole host of other quality of life measures.

The challenge is economic development doesn’t just happen. As a region, we have to create an environment that supports business growth and development. Greater Bemidji has a clear and focused action plan that is designed to set us apart from other regions and position us for long term, sustained growth.

As with many fields, the economic development world has changed dramatically over the past decade. While the objectives have stayed the same, how to be successful has changed dramatically. Increasingly the scope of work for economic development organizations have broadened, including at Greater Bemidji.

Greater Bemidji operates within a bold plan of action with five focus areas. Three of the focus areas are very traditional to economic development: (1) corporate recruitment; (2) supporting existing businesses to encourage expansions; and (3) helping entrepreneurs start new companies. These traditional functions are as important now as ever before, they just aren’t enough anymore.

The remaining focus areas are both unique to Greater Bemidji and are by their nature connected. The first is to grow, recruit and retain talent. Second, we focus on encouraging the development of the signature quality of life amenities.


Why talent? Isn’t that the in the wheelhouse of our local schools and higher education institutions? And why is Greater Bemidji as an economic development organization working on developing signature quality of life amenities?

Over the past decade, economic development has shifted from a race for companies to a race for talent. The regions that are most effective at growing and attracting a talented workforce will be the regions that grow and prosper. The reason for this shift can be summarized with one simple statistic: In Minnesota today, there are now two available jobs for every Minnesotan seeking a job. This is a dramatic shift and a real game-changer for economic development. In my 30-year career, the numbers were not only reversed, but they were as high as 20 job seekers for every available job.

Finding a quality workforce is every company’s No. 1 challenge. In my conversations with companies looking to grow or expand to the greater Bemidji region, the first question always is “can the region supply the workers we need to be successful?” The top priority of growing companies has to be the top priority of economic developers.

As a result, Greater Bemidji works in close partnership with the Bemidji schools, Bemidji State University and Northwest Technical College. It is why we are a strong advocate for initiatives like Students First and the Bemidji Career Academies. It is also why Greater Bemidji was the first local economic development organization in the state to create its own training center -- the Minnesota Innovation Initiative.

It is a short walk from our focus on talent and workforce to our interest in developing signature quality of life amenities. If economic development is a race for talent, and workers can now live and raise a family virtually anywhere, then we at Greater Bemidji have to ask the question, “Why Bemidji?” What separates us from other regions as a great place to live and raise a family?

We all love living in the Bemidji area, and understand how blessed we are to have the quality of life we do. Having said that, we can’t rest on our lead. We have to keep our eyes on the horizon for the quality of life amenities that will differentiate Bemidji from other regional centers. That is why we supported the development of the city’s outstanding park system. It’s why we fought hard to build the Sanford Center and continue to advocate for its future. And it is the purpose behind our recent effort to develop a sports and wellness complex in partnership with Sanford Health. What’s next? I’d love to hear your ideas.

Economic development is a race for talent. For our long-term prosperity, we have to confidently answer the question, “why Bemidji?”

Hengel is the executive director of Greater Bemidji.

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