Improvements and business growth: Survey takes pulse of Kandiyohi County business concerns
Kandiyohi County business owners see the local quality of life as one of the county’s greatest assets.
Many of them have achieved quality improvements and business growth this past year, and they outshine both the region and the state in innovation.
Yet they often feel hampered by high taxes and regulatory burdens. They’re encountering workforce shortages. And the quality of life seen as one of Kandiyohi County’s strengths also is viewed as a liability for offering too few choices in shopping, dining, recreation and entertainment.
These findings and more were presented to the community Wednesday with the public release of a countywide business retention survey, conducted last year by the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission and the Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce.
Organizers plan to use the survey results as a springboard for developing and implementing local projects that support and spur community growth.
“We have a lot of work ahead of us. We’re looking for more people to join us,” said Connie Schmoll, business development specialist with the Economic Development Commission and one of the leaders of the survey.
Eighty-two business owners — 60 in the retail, service, tourism and convention sectors and 22 in manufacturing — participated in the face-to-face surveys that were carried out late last year by a team of local volunteers.
Although the data contain few surprises, there are several “aha moments” and plenty of solid information to provide a valuable snapshot of what’s on the minds of Kandiyohi County business owners, said Ken Warner, president of the Willmar Lakes Area Chamber.
Among the findings:
• Owners of service and retail businesses viewed business growth as their greatest accomplishment last year. Three out of four reported that their sales are increasing and just over half have added jobs.
• Manufacturers were most proud of the quality improvements they made this past year. Half said their primary market is the entire U.S.; 67 percent reported their total sales are increasing.
• Respondents saw Willmar’s status as a regional center, with a diverse mix of businesses, educational opportunities and job availability, as a plus. They also saw ethnic diversity as a strength — but believed more needs to be done to embrace cultural understanding.
The business leaders who participated in the survey expect significant workforce change over the next decade with a wave of boomer retirements, increasing workforce diversity and younger workers with different skills.
Workforce gaps loom as a growing issue. Employers said it’s getting harder to fill jobs at a variety of skill levels, from technical to those requiring an advanced degree.
Business owners saw the current business climate, reflected in their tax and regulatory burden, as a negative. Although several praised local leaders for being forward-thinking, many voiced only moderate satisfaction with community leadership and said they were concerned about perceived dysfunction and distrust within the Willmar City Council.
The key for local business leaders will be to build on the county’s assets, address the challenges and develop strategies that sustain positive economic development, said Bill Blazar, interim president of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce.
“We can affect these decisions that companies make so it triggers growth two years from now,” he told the 40-some people who attended the public event Wednesday morning to share the survey findings.
Measured against regional and state data collected through the Minnesota Chamber’s Grow Minnesota program during nearly 9,000 one-on-one visits over the past 11 years, Kandiyohi County is outperforming most of its peers in business innovation, Blazar said. “It suggests some good things. That it’s happening here in Willmar more frequently is significant.”
The county also outperforms southwestern Minnesota and the state as a whole in exporting goods and services to the rest of the U.S., as well as in future plans by businesses to make new investments, Blazar said.
A growing workforce crunch could slow progress, however, by making it harder for employers to fill jobs and possibly forcing some businesses to rethink their plans for expansion, he said.
Compared to the rest of the state, “that trend has accelerated here in Kandiyohi County,” he said.
Organizers of the EDC and Willmar Lakes Area Chamber business survey have identified workforce development as one of their priorities.
Their ambitious agenda also includes improving broadband speed and accessibility in Kandiyohi County, shoring up excellence in public schools and increasing community acceptance of “outsiders” and those from diverse backgrounds.
“That’s our task ahead of us,” said Schmoll.
West Central Tribune by Anne Polta