Benson group highlighting community advantages

BENSON -- When Gary Loen heard a Benson snowmobile run organizer was looking at Twin Cities companies for banners for the event, he felt he had to speak up.

BENSON -- When Gary Loen heard a Benson snowmobile run organizer was looking at Twin Cities companies for banners for the event, he felt he had to speak up.

Loen told the organizer he didn't need to look outside Benson city limits. Future Products in Benson makes banners and could surely meet the organizer's needs.

Loen, owner of Loen Electric in Benson, wasn't only referring a local business when he told the organizer about Future Products, he also was using leadership training he received last month.

Loen and 12 other Benson area business people received training through the Blandin Foundation called the Community Advantage Leadership Program, or CALP.

It was the first time Blandin accepted applicants for the program from only one community. The Southwest Minnesota Foundation encouraged them to apply.


The group, made up of a diverse cross-section of business leaders, is now working together to build on and improve Benson and the surrounding communities of Danvers, DeGraff, Clontarf and Swift Falls.

One of the group's main objectives is to look at needs in the community and determine what local person or business can fill that need.

"What do you need in Benson to stay in Benson and spend in Benson," said John Van Woy, Fibrominn plant manager and CALP member.

They use a "leaky bucket" analysis to show people what shopping locally can do for the community -- and how shopping in other cities hurts the city.

Money coming into a community, such as a person's wages, goes into the "bucket," or community, and stays there as long as people continue to use local services and stores, according to Blandin. When a person takes their wages outside the community, the money leaks from the bucket and is no longer circulated through the community.

To determine how to keep the bucket from leaking, group members are interviewing local businesses about what they offer and what they need to help their business.

In December, the group will host a public meeting to get input from all residents about what Benson does well and what it still needs. That information will help the group form goals for improving the area.

John Connelly, State Bank of Danvers president and CALP member, said most economic development programs look at the barriers to success.


"This one just concentrates on assets. What do we already have in the community?" Connelly said.

The group members pointed out that Benson is already a strong city for its size because it has several companies in the renewable energy and agriculture fields, a long history of successful entrepreneurs and a downtown full of businesses.

At the Blandin training, the group was asked to guess how many businesses there are in Benson and most guessed about 50 to 80. Really, there are 157 Benson businesses and 262 when those in surrounding communities are counted.

"Nobody guessed half that," Connelly said. "It's amazing how many there are."

Oftentimes, people just don't know what certain businesses do, Connelly said. In the business interviews, the members get a better understanding of local business' products and services.

"A lot of people want to know what's going on in there," he said.

Backstreet Media and Backstreet Printing in Benson have been interviewed by CALP members. The businesses are under the same ownership and together sell office supplies, do printing, graphic and Web site design, produce marketing materials and write technical manuals.

Co-owner Bob Orr said he thinks CALP will be able help to figure out what would encourage people to do business in town. If the city is able to offer more types of businesses, it may help established businesses, he said.


There isn't a women's clothing store in Benson, for example, so local women go to Willmar or St. Cloud to shop, Orr said.

"So they say, 'Well I'm going to Willmar so as long as I'm there I'm going to Wal-Mart," Orr said.

Having a women's clothing store in town would keep potential customers in Benson, he said.

His office supply prices might be a little higher than a discount store, Orr said, but not high enough to justify the gasoline used to drive out of town.

Orr said CALP should help "keep everyone focused on the town" and increase use of local businesses.

The CALP community meeting will be at 7 p.m. Dec. 1 at the Benson Golf Club.

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