WILLMAR—As Willmar’s population continues to diversify, with people coming to the city from around the world, the business community is also growing and changing, with dozens of businesses owned and operated by minorities.
“They increasingly represent a significant portion of our economy,” said Aaron Backman, executive director of the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission.
To make sure the EDC can assist those businesses, Backman applied to the Southwest Initiative Foundation for a $15,000 business retention and expansion grant for diverse businesses. The grant was awarded in December and now Backman is making plans to visit with at least 16 minority-owned businesses by the end of June.
He will have many from which to choose, of all sorts. Backman said there are 27 businesses owned and operated by those of East African decent, and even more led by Latinos or people coming from Asia.
“It is not inconsequential,” Backman said.
The grant will be used for the EDC’s operational costs related to Backman’s business visits. He has just completed a form for site visits, which will ask the business owners for general information about their business. Backman will also speak with them about future plans and where assistance could be welcome.
By the end of June, Backman will have to submit report about his visits to Southwest Initiative Foundation, explaining how the EDC will offer assistance to those businesses.
“We would be a referral agency for minority businesses,” Backman said.
He said some businesses might need technical assistance, such as information about how to apply for a building permit or get in touch with the state Department of Employment and Economic Development, or a business might need assistance with building and expansion projects.
“What are some of the funding sources available,” Backman said.
In the grand scheme of business projects, the local EDC plays a minor rule in many cases, Backman said. He wants to be able to get people the help they need.
“What I’m trying to do is pull in people that are the best fit,” Backman said.
It can be a complicated affair owning a business, making sure to follow the rules and regulations and knowing where to go or who to speak to when there are questions. It can even more difficult for those who might not have grown up in the United States or Minnesota.
“New folks might not be aware,” Backman said.
While he hasn’t made any official business visits yet, Backman said he has already been in contact with some minority-owned businesses. By the time the grant expires at the end of June, Backman hopes to have some projects in the works.
“My goal is to have three or four businesses we have assisted financially,” Backman said.
Backman said it’s important to focus on helping minorities and immigrants enter the business community and he thinks that Willmar can lead the charge.
“I view Willmar as being on the leading edge of changing work forces,” Backman said, pointing to Willmar Public Schools’ current demographic makeup. Backman said the school system is now over 50 percent non-Caucasian, joining 21 other school districts across the state with equally diverse student bodies.
“This is our future workforce. We need to engage that work force,” Backman said, to encourage them to stay in the community and open their own businesses.
While most of the diverse businesses are small, with only a few employees, there are examples with many more.
“The largest has 30 people working for him,” Backman said, and there are other businesses that continue to grow as well. He said he believes that in 10 to 12 years, these minority businesses will hold an even big role in Willmar’s economy.
“They will become our new medium-sized businesses,” Backman said.
Willmar’s diverse business community is an asset to Willmar, Backman said, and the EDC is hoping to build stronger relationships with them through the grant.
“They bring different perspectives and different experiences. They like the American dream of making a better future for their children,” Backman said.
West Central Tribune by Shelby Lindrud