The Economic Alliance is the Collaborative Best of Wadena County
14 Jan 2021
The West Central Economic Development Alliance was formed as a private, not-for-profit economic development agency in 2011, with direction to provide a voice for public and private business interests in Wadena County. Today, the organization, known as the Economic Alliance, consists of an Executive Board of volunteers representing those interests in banking, government, non-profit, and private industry with a full-time Executive Director, Katie Heppner, who carries out the day-to-day operations, ensuring those voices are heard.
“Prior to 2011, a few cities had some sort of economic development organization and we were fortunate to be represented by the Region 5 Development Commission, but none had a commitment solely to Wadena County,” she said. “There was a feeling that an organization was needed to focus on economic development in Wadena County.”
The West Central Telephone Association, of Sebeka, was the spearhead for the organizations' creation, hiring a director and filing for 501c6 non-profit designation. A few years later, the county itself became involved, which elevated the organization to another level of economic development commitment.
“Prior to the Alliance, much of the economic activities were led by individuals who were excellent ambassadors for their city, but were commonly pulled in so many directions that they were not able to offer the focus economic development necessitated,” said Heppner. “Now, we are able to dedicate the time to think critically about economic development, with the backgrounds and connections to bring a level of professionalism to local economic development.”
Heppner came on board in 2018 and has continued the effort to focus on collaboration between cities in Wadena County.
“We really need to share our resources here,” she said. “The county is too small to not work together.”
That collaboration has led to several successful projects recently, including the county’s participation in the Rural Child Care Innovation Program to address area childcare shortage and a countywide housing study that provided recommendations for how to improve the local housing stock.
The Alliance operates with a foundation of three primary pillars of structure for its activities. The first pillar is education, with training classes and one-on-one consultation to teach would-be entrepreneurs. Heppner said the area has excellent existing resources already in place.
“One example is the Small Business Development Center in Brainerd, despite not being in Wadena County, has knowledgeable consultants willing to travel to those who need their services,” she said.
Networking is the second pillar, as the Alliance seeks to connect business and community members to share ideas and solve problems. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Heppner was able to arrange bi-weekly digital coffee talks for speakers to spend 15 minutes describing their services and facilitating further contact.
“There are a lot of people in our community with similar interests and passions, who are not aware of or connected with each other,” said Heppner. “These networking events are critical to help entrepreneurs and business owners know what is going on and not feel so alone.”
The last pillar is advocacy, defined as the voice of Wadena County’s economic interests with regional, state and federal entities. The Alliance wrote grants totaling $150,000 in 2019 and it serves as a starting point for prospective businesses and site selectors, while building positive relationships with key players, such as elected officials, to ensure they are aware of what their community needs.
The pillars are based on the local advantages found in Wadena County. The tight knit community has always displayed a willingness to help others and has a central location in the between popular areas easily accessed in the Dakotas, Twin Cities and Northern Minnesota. Heppner also pointed to an amazing advantage of exceptional broadband coverage in the rural community, offering the rare opportunity to work and participate in ways not normally found in a rural setting.
“We are one of the best-connected areas in the state, where a family can have high-speed internet but be living on a 40-acre lot,” said Heppner. “And it is easy to get to those other places, as we like to say we are two hours from everywhere.”
The three areas of focus for the Alliance in 2021 are childcare, housing and Business Retention and Expansion. Heppner said the area was reminded of the importance of childcare during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
“Child care plays a huge economic role, because people cannot work if they have no place for their children to go,” she said. “The Rural Child Care innovation is focused on what we can do differently to ensure we do not go through that again.”
In 2020, the Economic Alliance partnered with Wadena County to complete a county-wide housing study. This year, they will focus on communicating the findings and using the recommendations to promote further development. Finally, the Economic Alliance will commit a significant amount of time and resources to focus on Business Retention and Expansion in 2021.
“As businesses look to fully re-open after COVID-19, we need to understand the role the Alliance can play and fully communicate that,” said Heppner. “The Economic Alliance's role has always been to support businesses in Wadena County, but now more than ever, this is the year to show it.”