Dave Hengel, Executive Director of Greater Bemidji
So much of our state and nation are mired in inaction- we have become so partisan and spend so much time arguing about things we can’t agree on that it seems we have no time to work together on the things we can agree on. We have almost become comfortable with our inaction.
For us to continue to ensure a successful community here in Bemidji, we have to resist the temptation to just discuss, argue, spin and do nothing. There is simply too much long-range risk in comfortable inaction.
At Greater Bemidji, we have embraced a set of core values that make us who we are. They include strong leadership, innovation, risk-taking, community stewardship, trustworthiness, accountability, results oriented and the partner of choice in our region. So many of our values have at their core one theme: action. We are creative. We try things. We test ideas. We continually look for ways to make a difference in support of our community. We often ask ourselves the question, “why not?”. In many ways, Greater Bemidji acts as a civic entrepreneur in support of our region.
While there are many stories of civic entrepreneurship among our Bemidji Alliance partners the Visit Bemidji, the Bemidji Chamber and the Downtown Business Alliance, let me share a few examples within our organization at Greater Bemidji.
Headwaters Angel Network
In the coming days, Greater Bemidji will be launching the Headwaters Angel Network. The network is a platform for emerging entrepreneurs, start-ups and businesses to connect with potential investors in the Bemidji area driven to support our local economy.
Why does this matter? Successful entrepreneurs and start-up businesses can make an exponential impact on the region. Think about the great companies in northern Minnesota- DigiKey, Marvin Windows, Team Industries, etc. They all have one thing in common: they were started by a local entrepreneur.
Angel networks are so important for new start-ups. They provide start-up capital critical in launching new ideas and businesses, especially during the time when entrepreneurs and businesses don’t yet qualify for bank financing. Having a strong group of investors in the Bemidji area willing to put their own funds at risk to support our local economy can really make a difference.
Our role at Greater Bemidji
Our role at Greater Bemidji is similar to the television show Shark Tank. First, we work to identify and assemble the potential investors. At the same time, we connect with entrepreneurs and start-ups that might be a fit for angel investing. We provide the vehicle for the entrepreneur and investor to connect.
It seems simple, but it is not. We are excited to test the model and see if the Headwaters Angel Network will have the impact we believe it has the potential to have.
Small Business Check-Up
Another example of civic entrepreneurship at Greater Bemidji is our Small Business Check-Up initiative. Small businesses are the backbone of our region’s economy. From downtown businesses to small manufacturing operations, the collective impact on our economy is significant. In fact, the Small Business Administration estimates that 64 percent of jobs are created by small businesses. I am certain the number is higher in Bemidji.
With support from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, Greater Bemidji launched the Small Business Check-Up initiative six months ago. Ultimately, the intent of the Small Business Check-Up is to ensure our region’s small businesses have the support and resources they need to grow and prosper—free of charge.
The concept is fairly simple. Greater Bemidji has assembled a team of small business coaches that meet with small businesses for an hour to complete a check-up. We talk with the business about their vision and strategic direction, discuss business finance, review operations and assess their marketing efforts. If there is any gaps or interest by the business to improve in any area, Greater Bemidji’s coaches connect small businesses to the resources available to them.
The most innovative (and important) aspect of the program is not what we provide, but how we do it. We are working to proactively reach out to our small businesses, many of which have no idea of the business support network available to them. Small businesses are pulled in so many directions, we have the responsibility to be proactive in reaching out to them, not just wait for them to contact us.
A final innovative initiative Greater Bemidji recently launched was 218 Relocate. Eighteen months ago, Greater Bemidji saw an opportunity to grow our economy and increase our region’s workforce—a critical challenge facing economic development. Initially, the 218 Relocate initiative was designed to provide incentives to teleworkers who chose to relocate to our region. The incentives include six months of gigabit broadband from Paul Bunyan Communications, free access to our LaunchPad coworking space, free access to our Community Concierge program and a free associate membership at the Bemidji Chamber.
Since its inception, over 200 new residents have moved to Bemidji in part due to the 218 Relocate incentive program. Amazing (it even caught us at Greater Bemidji by surprise). We have since launched a similar incentive for new workers to our area that are not remote workers.
What is innovative and entrepreneurial about the 218 Relocate program is how it came to be. The Greater Bemidji Board (along with its partners at the Neilson Foundation and Paul Bunyan Communications) saw an opportunity and acted on it.
Three factors provided a perfect storm for our success. First, Paul Bunyan Communication’s launch of gigabit (now ten gigabit) broadband caught the attention of much of the country, particularly teleworkers. At the same time, teleworkers and workers in general began questioning whether metro areas were a good place for themselves and their families due to the rise in cost of living and, in some cases, violence. Finally, it was clear that the pandemic would speed up the integration of and comfort level in remote work for both businesses and families.
Scan the landscape. See an opportunity. Act on it. That’s how civic entrepreneurship works.
Last month, I shared our pitch for the Bemidji area as a region with a unique blend of a vibrant, emerging regional center amidst a beautiful natural environment that remains affordable to live, work and raise a family. Yet we believe our competitive advantage is that we try harder in part because we have to. Our region is rarely in a position where opportunities come to us. We have to go find them. Once we see opportunity, we need to act on it.
I’m confident in our region’s future in part because we resist the temptation of “comfortable inaction”. Civic entrepreneurship is in our community’s DNA- it’s one of our communities core values.
Have innovative and creative ideas to support Bemidji’s growing economy? We would love to hear from you. Reach out to us at Greater Bemidji.
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