Over the course of six months in 2020, ERJPB’s Northspan staff consultants completed 28 Business Retention & Expansion (BRE) visits with a variety of East Range businesses. These in-person, one-on-one interviews with business owners and operators aimed to gauge both current operations and expansion plans.
Businesses across the full spectrum of the East Range economy participated to share their perceptions of the business climate and broader community conditions, such as the state of broadband on the East Range.
The results of the 2020 survey led to six recommendations to help retain and expand East Range businesses:
- Use the ERJPB loan fund to support local businesses and increase visibility – The pandemic created an immediate opportunity to re-deploy the dormant loan fund to support businesses through the crisis. In the early phases of the pandemic, ERJPB gave out eight grants to businesses to support them through the initial business closures. Later, with matching funding from IRRR’s Disaster Relief Loan Program, it gave out six zero-interest loans to further support businesses and help them emerge from the pandemic stronger than before. As these businesses pay back their loans, ERJPB will look to create a new funding program to continue loaning out these dollars.
- Explore a unified business presence – ERJPB has begun convening regular meetings of a marketing subcommittee that includes representatives from the Hoyt Lakes and Aurora Chambers of Commerce and the Biwabik Area Citizens Association. The subcommittee is in the process of collecting community input for a region-wide shop local campaign.
- Explore ways to support business marketing efforts – In May 2020, ERJPB deployed $20,000 in Blandin Broadband Communities funding for technology audits and to support businesses’ digital marketing efforts. This funding paid for 10 businesses to receive this consultation from the Northland Small Business Development Center, a particularly vital service amid the pandemic. Businesses were given immediate steps they could take to boost their online presence and share information.
- Develop an incubator space for lease – This is a long-term goal to develop a leasable space that would provide a location with lower barriers to entry for entrepreneurs and startups to use as they generate income and eventually scale up to owning their own buildings. ERJPB is exploring several potential opportunities which include a Bavarian Market Village currently in development in Biwabik, a building with unused space in Aurora, and several privately-owned buildings in Hoyt Lakes.
- Enhance interconnectedness of tourism efforts – This long-term goal builds on ideas for better integrating East Range communities with established amenities. An example would be a marketing effort with a focus on activities that do not compete with Giants Ridge offerings and might appeal to visitors and locals who do not ski, golf, or bike. Opportunities to work with Iron Range Tourism Bureau services and support its efforts could include greater advertising of local businesses at lodging locations, and a local transportation offering to connect offsite hotels and East Range businesses with Giants Ridge, as well as attractions further off the beaten path through local trail clubs.
- Continue East Range broadband advocacy efforts – A research and advocacy effort resulted in the Department of Employment and Economic Development awarding a Border to Border grant to Mediacom to expand service in Biwabik Township and a portion of the Town of White. With this project, nearly all inhabited areas of the East Range will have access to broadband under the state’s current definition. We will continue to pursue other funding opportunities as they become available and support the work of businesses like CTC, which provides reliable, high-speed internet to Iron Range businesses of all sizes.
Following the results of the 2020 BRE effort, the goal is to repeat the process on a regular basis. Accordingly, in-person interviews with approximately 25 businesses will take place in February to help identify priorities for business development in the region. The results will be tabulated as part of the statewide Grow Minnesota initiative and factor into ERJPB’s efforts to support business needs in the area.
Your input is welcome! For more info, contact Miriam Kero.