Everyone agrees that experience at running a business is a must in the SBDC consultant

    Now that the launch of a Small Business Development Center (SBDC) in Crookston in 2018 is official – the CHEDA Board of Directors this week unanimously approved its share of the necessary local match – it’s time to craft a job description, advertise the position’s availability and, local stakeholders are hoping, hire a great person that will be a go-to, trusted and credible resource for local and area entrepreneurs looking to start a small business, or existing small businesses looking for various types of guidance and advice.

    “It’s so very important to find a good person, the right person, with experience,” said University of Minnesota Crookston Chancellor Mary Holz-Clause, the driving force behind an SBDC office in Crookston becoming a reality. “We want someone who’s been there, done that, someone who knows how to run a business.”

    The SBDC consultant will be a University of Minnesota employee and will report directly to the chancellor. There will also be an advisory council made up of various stakeholders, including representatives of the City of Crookston and CHEDA, that will keep tabs on how the SBDC is impacting the small business climate in and around Crookston. There will be similar representation on the search committee charged with vetting applicants.

    The plan is to pay the SBDC consultant a salary of $60,000 to $65,000 a year, plus the U of M’s benefits package. Holz-Clause may not be 100 percent confident that the ideal candidate will emerge at that salary price-point, but she said she certainly is hopeful. Experience will be the key, she and other stakeholders agree; a recent college graduate or someone who’s never run a business simply will lack the skills demanded of the SBDC consultant, not to mention credibility in the eyes of the entrepreneurs and business-people he/she will be working with.

    “This person absolutely must have experience in this; you can’t throw some fresh college grad in there,” said CHEDA Board member Paul Eickhof, who owns Eickhof Columbaria in Crookston.

    Holz-Clause said she has a couple people in mind that she’s going to mention the position to, and said she’s open to suggestions for potential applications from others as well. She included recent retirees “with that fire still in the belly” who are looking to stay busy and positively impact economic development in and around Crookston as people who might find such a challenge attractive.

    “I do think that’s a good salary, it should generate some interest,” she said. “Someone is going to wake up every day and this is going to be their job. I think that is going to sound attractive to people possessing a unique set of skills.”

    Holz-Clause’s initial and admittedly ambitious goal was to the SBDC consultant hired by January. In her latest proposal, she lists February. But she acknowledges that, especially considering the U of M’s deliberate hiring process, having the position filled by March is probably most realistic.

    City Council Member Jake Fee said he’d rather take some time to fill the position than rush to fill it with an under-qualified person. Holz-Clause agreed, and added that if the initial applicant pool is deemed not up to snuff, the window to advertise the position will remain open.

    “We won’t just hire someone for the sake of getting it started,” she said. “It will take a very special person, so we need to stay true to finding the right person.”

Ready to roll

    This region has been underserved by SBDC services for years, with a consultant based in Bemidji coming to Crookston now and then. Holz-Clause met with SBDC representatives on the University of Minnesota Duluth campus, the closest actual SBDC office to Crookston, and they were able to free up some money, around $40,000, from two years remaining on the SBDC contract at UMD to help launch an office in Crookston. UMC is kicking in $20,000 in 2018 and again in 2019, and the Crookston City Council earlier this month agreed to kick in $15,000 in each of the next two years.

    The CHEDA contribution will actually flow to CHEDA from the City, courtesy of some of the money the City is no longer committing to the Downtown Crookston Development Partnership’s part-time paid facilitator position, which no longer exists.

    CHEDA Executive Director Craig Hoiseth said that when an SBDC office was located at Concordia College in Moorhead several years ago, a consultant had an office at Valley Technology Park, also CHEDA’s headquarters. There was more entrepreneurial activity in Crookston in those days, he recalled, and he attributes that to the SBDC’s local presence.

    “It creates knowledge of who’s out there looking to start a business and (the consultant) can interface with them,” he said. “It’s very compatible with what CHEDA does. …You look at Wonderful Life Foods, Back When Bakery, Vertical Malt, we drive those discussions internally. (The SBDC) would allow someone else to have a more hands-on approach, building business plans, pro-formas, working with banks.”

    The new SBDC office will be based at VTP as well, at least for the first few months to a year. Holz-Clause and others have expressed a desire to move it downtown at some point, but, now that the funding has been secured, everyone’s focus now is on filling the position and getting the SBDC operational.

    The funding partners are only committed for the next two years because that’s what remains on the SBDC contract at UMD. While Holz-Clause said it’s likely that the City and CHEDA would be asked to provide some level of funding beyond 2019, she said the goal and/or hope over the next two years is to illustrate the positive impact of the SBDC in Crookston as well as its future potential, and then use that data to make the case for other potential partners contributing some money, including those located in neighboring communities that might also benefit from startup businesses launched with the SBDC’s help.

    SBDCs aren’t allowed to charge for services and, therefore, can’t make a profit, Holz-Clause noted.

    “To say I know where the funding is going to come from in two years, I don’t, but I’m confident we’ll be able to build these relationships,” she said. “Down the line we realize we’d want to expand our relationships.”

    Just getting the word out that a new SBDC office has opened in Crookston and properly marketing its services is going to take some time, the chancellor added. “Quite honestly, it’s going to probably take a couple of years of this kind of intentionality to really start moving the needle, but we need to demonstrate our commitment our time, and I think we’ll see results,” Holz-Clause said.

    CHEDA Board member Craig Morgan said he used the SBDC when he was young “and didn’t know what I was supposed to do.” City Council Member Steve Erickson, a small business owner himself, added that business-people are always wondering how they can make things bigger, faster and otherwise better. “I think this could be an important resource to help make that happen,” he said.