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Minnesota Chamber-sponsored program helps retain businesses through recession

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Minnesota businesses are ready to grow again, according to a Minnesota Chamber-sponsored program.

It's "Grow Minnesota!" annual report shows the state can expect significant new investment as businesses emerge from the recession - but it will not be automatic as business owners cite crucial issues that must be solvd by lawmakers.

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"Holding the line on taxes is key to their decision to stay and grow in Minnesota," said Bill Blazar, senior vice president of public affairs and business development at the Minnesota Chamber. "Other cost factors are also cause for immediate concern. Electricity rates in many parts of the state are becoming less competitive, and the environmental permitting process continues to be lengthy and costly for too many Minnesota businesses."

"Grow Minnesota!" is completing its sixth year as the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce's private-sector job retention and creation program. It is conducted in partnership with 50 local chambers of commerce and organizations, including the Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce. Volunteers statewide conducted one-on-one conversations with owners or top-level managers of nearly 900 companies this past year.

"In this current economy, it has been more important than ever to meet face to face with companies in our community. The 'Grow Minnesota!' program provides the conduit to identify and assist our local businesses with their concerns," said Lori Paris, president of the Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce. "In our first year, the Chamber partnered on a local level with the Joint Economic Development Commission in making many of its visits.

"The Bemidji Chamber was able to assist one of our forest products industry companies and garner $150,000 in job retention grants through the Pohlad Foundation's Get Ready to Grow program,"{ she said.

Statewide, $5.5 million in low-interest loans and grants was distributed to 90 small businesses in 62 communities, through a grant from the Pohlad Family Foundation. The loans and grants are designed to help these businesses survive the recession and be prepared to grow as it ends.

"Based on our visits, the businesses that are the strongest coming out of the recession have three things in common: first, productivity growth: second, reduced expenses; and, third, new customers, especially outside the United States," according to the "Grow Minnesota!" report. "Thus, we expect recovery to bring more investment, more exporting and more orders, but not necessarily more jobs. Those will likely have to come from the creation of new enterprises."

"Grow Minnesota!" started with the goal of thanking businesses for investing in Minnesota and employing Minnesotans, it said. Every "Grow Minnesota!" business retention visit also includes an offer of assistance to the company to help it be more successful in Minnesota.

Businesses also are asked what is needed in public policy to assure they will stay and grow in the state. With more than 4,000 business retention visits completed in six years, it became apparent that the 50 local chamber partners and their volunteers are connecting only with a fraction of Minnesota's more than 100,000 businesses, it said.

That spawned the creation of BusinessConnection, an electronic business assistance and referral network launched in conjunction with the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. The service is free to all companies and is intended to be a single entry point to help businesses connect with private and public resources to solve everyday business problems.

It can be accessed online at www.mnbizconnect.com or by calling (888) MINN-BIZ (646-6249).

Blazar said he expects the economic recovery to bring more exporting and more orders -- but not necessarily more jobs. "Creating more businesses will be key to getting Minnesotans back to work," Blazar said.

Jobs shed during the recession have, to a significant extent, been permanently replaced by changes in processes, procedures and even some new equipment, he said.

"Minnesota's economy recovery has begun and will continue through the coming year," Blazar said. "But the message is clear. There is a new reality coming for businesses across our state, and now is the time for everyone -- businesses as well as policy-makers -- to understand the risks and mine the new opportunities. A big part of that is to create more businesses and have them be successful."

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