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Idea takes aim at helping existing businesses grow

There are plenty of independent contractors and businesses operating in the rural counties of the Upper Minnesota River Valley, but they rarely get a shot at the big projects, even those that happen close to home.

Many lack the resources to deal with the paperwork, bureaucracy or bonding requirements that come with big, public projects. Or, they're unable to bid on projects that would demand more workers and resources than they can provide on their own.

That could change if they worked cooperatively, and took advantage of the preferences available both to businesses owned by veterans and those located in rural counties targeted for economic development by the state, according to Michelle Gatz, veterans service officer in Yellow Medicine County.

She organized a meeting hosted Wednesday night at the Prairie's Edge Casino by the Upper Sioux Community. Representatives from Lac qui Parle, Chippewa, Swift and Yellow Medicine counties, as well as business owners and economic development staff, were invited to look at how they could cooperate.

Gatz said the idea is to turn on its head the notion that the rural communities should pursue economic development by attracting new businesses: Far better to help existing businesses succeed and grow, she said.

The federal government provides a 4 percent preference to bids by businesses owned by military veterans, according to Gatz. It effectively means that a $104,000 bid by a veteran-owned business can be given preference to a $100,000 bid by a firm not owned by a veteran.

In much the same fashion, the state of Minnesota provides a preference to bids from contractors and independent businesses in the four Upper Minnesota River Valley counties based on the region's economic development needs.

Gatz said the group's hope is to obtain funds to hire someone who can help the independent contractors put together bids on projects and meet the requirements. The same person would also coordinate the cooperation that would be needed to make joint bids and projects happen.

She acknowledged the challenges. Many of the contractors and small business owners who will be working together are also longtime competitors.

On the other hand, a two-person plumbing shop in a rural community is hardly going to be able to put together the workers and resources needed for a major building project. But combine the plumbers in three or four shops from as many communities, and there's no doubt that they could get the job done, she said.

Gatz said the idea for what's being called the Veterans Joint Business Venture came about as she watched bids for major public infrastructure projects awarded to large firms located many miles away, sometimes with headquarters outside of Minnesota. The economic bang that would result by awarding those projects to firms with local headquarters and workers would be much greater, she said.

"We need to stop money from leaving our towns,'' she said.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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