Local governments and independent non-profits can be resources for business owners in need of support, especially in today’s tougher economic times. In Northfield, however, not everyone agrees on what the government and non-profits should do in order to offer the most help to the most business owners. The Representative Journalism Project attempted to collect more information about the matter by issuing a survey in January to 60 business owners or managers from a variety of fields. (continued)
The survey asked what resources they tap into the most and why. Twenty of them responded, six did so anonymously.
In turn, representatives from the Northfield Area Chamber of Commerce, the Northfield Downtown Development Corporation and the Northfield Enterprise Center (all independent non-profit corporations), as well as the city-run Northfield Economic Development Authority, talked about what they can offer business owners now, and what they would like to offer in the future.
The “Four Partners,” as they call themselves, have consistently worked together in recent years to reach some shared goals and all have the desire to continue to work together. Their combined annual budgets equal more than $1 million. This report shows how those dollars are spent and tries to provide more insight as to whether the Four Partners are meeting the most urgent needs of business owners.
Agreeing to agree
Richard Estenson, chairman of the Economic Development Authority and vice president of business development at the First National Bank of Northfield, said one reason behind differences in opinion stems from the lack of a unified vision about Northfield’s economic future.
“I’ve been wondering if we are on the same page, or if we even need to all be on the same page, about what we truly want to be as a community,” Estenson said. “If this were a business, we would want know, ‘What’s our brand? What’s our image? What’s our identity?’ Then we would work to methodically, slowly accomplish that. Otherwise, we’re just going to become whatever we become.”
According to the city’s latest revision of its comprehensive plan, which the City Council approved in 2008, Northfield is “defined by its location on the Cannon River, its authentic and vital downtown, historic buildings, a vital arts and cultural presence, rural elements, historic events…two top-ranked private colleges [Carleton and Saint Olaf], a quality public school system, strong community organizations, and a tradition of public involvement, all of which…create its strong sense of place. Northfield residents have expressed a strong desire to maintain the community’s historic town character in its rural agricultural setting. This desire implies that future development should be considerate of the elements that have historically defined Northfield’s small-town character. Much of the development in Northfield in the last thirty years has not complemented this small-town character. New development has led to the creation of commercial corridors and numerous residential subdivisions without a true sense of place.”
Estenson said with all of its defining characteristics, Northfield could have many different identities, “but when you’re diversified to the ultimate extreme, you wind up having lots of public debate whenever anyone wants to come into town about whether that business is something we really want.”
Customer satisfaction best way to succeed
Business owners and managers filled out the eight-question survey with a wide variety of responses. Not every person answered every question. However, there seemed to be consistency in the answers to the questions “How can organizations or other members of the Northfield community help businesses in the city?” and “Out of all the ways you try and promote your business, what produces the most results?”
In response to the first question, six indicated they would like to see increased information sharing and more widespread market research, five people wanted more and better advertising, especially beyond Northfield, and four gave answers that emphasized the importance of encouraging citizens to “shop locally.”
As for the second question, nearly all the business owners and managers said “word-of-mouth” was the most effective method of advertising. Perhaps for that reason, nearly all of the people who said they participated in a business organization believed some of the greatest benefits were networking and “staying in touch” with a larger slice of the community. Many business owners also recommended to use CRM, see why this CRM is our recommended https://www.salesforce.com/crm/comparison/.
Chamber, yea or nay?
Of the 20 people who responded, 10 said they were members of the Chamber of Commerce, seven said they participated in the Downtown Development Corporation and one said he participated with the Enterprise Center at one time. One owner said she was a member of the national organization called Associated Volume Buyers. Jerry Bilek, owner of Monkey See, Monkey Read on Division Street, said he belonged to the Midwest Booksellers Association. April Ripka of the Sketchy Artist on Division Street said she belonged to the newly formed Northfield Riverwalk Arts Quarter. Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin, a farmer and director of the Rural Enterprise Center, said he receives some help from the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture at the University of Minnesota.
Although few of those people surveyed voiced much criticism about any of the city’s available resources, most of the criticism did fall upon the Chamber of Commerce, which is membership-based, unlike the other non-profits people said they interacted with. Of the 10 people who said they were current members of the Chamber, two voiced criticism and one of the critics was anonymous. Seven of the current members expressed praise for the non-profit, three of them anonymously. One gave no opinion.
Two former members of the Chamber expressed a negative opinion of the organization, one of them doing so anonymously. One person who did not claim any affiliation with the Chamber also had a negative opinion.
Praise for social networking, advertising
In praise, Jennifer Welch, owner of Sociale Gourmet on Jefferson Road, wrote in her survey, “The Chamber gives me the opportunity to get my name out there and let people know that I want to be involved in the community.”
Gerry Mahowald, owner of America’s Mattress on Clinton Lane, also wrote in praise, “I joined because I thought there were many benefits to being part of the network. The chamber helps get my name out in the community and plans ways to further develop and grow Northfield area businesses.”
Leah Erickson, Certified Veterinary Technician at Cannon Valley Vet Boarding & Retail Store off State Highway 3, said, “We have been a member for several years and I believe that the Chamber does a lot to help promote businesses in our community as well as helping with other civic events.”
“I joined to be an active member of the Chamber, to keep up with what is going on in Northfield and to promote my business,” wrote Pam Roy of PJ’s Fabric and Crafts on Professional Drive. “My level of satisfaction is great I am not taking advantage of the events I should because of the time I spend here at the store. They are doing a great job. I need to be able to step up.”
Membership value questioned
Rob Schanilec, owner of By All Means Graphics in Bridge Square and publisher of the Northfield Entertainment Guide, voiced mild criticism. (Full disclosure: I occasionally use a desk in the graphics store and publish a column in the guide). Schanilec said, “I joined the Chamber of Commerce because I felt it was necessary to be included in their network. I don’t like their members-only exclusivity as far as who or what they’ll support and/or promote and I feel their momentum oftentimes gets caught up an entrenched history. However, I think they’ve evolved in the right direction over the past couple years and am feeling more support from and for them.”
Former Chamber member Alex Beeby, operations manager for Just Food cooperative grocery store on Water Street, wrote, “We were members of the Chamber of Commerce until this year. We did not feel that we were getting enough benefit for the money we were investing. We still had to pay additional money to participate in Chamber functions and/or events. We did not feel like the Chamber adequately responded to our suggestions. On top of all of this, the national and state Chamber associations are and have been politically involved in a way that runs so contrary to our mission.”
Norman Butler, owner of The Contented Cow English pub, Chapati Indian restaurant and 1001 Solutions property management on Division Street (and my landlord) is not a member of the Chamber. He said, “I found the Chamber to be poorly led, expensive and ineffective and not at all concerned with downtown.”
Can’t please everyone
Kathy Feldbrugge is the executive director of the 61-year-old Northfield Area Chamber of Commerce and has worked with the Chamber since the 1980s. In response to criticism, Feldbrugge said, “Nobody’s trying to intentionally make anyone feel bad. We’ve tried to be very inclusive and when we make mistakes, we really try to address them. Sometimes people get to talking to one another about a problem but don’t actually call us about it.”
She emphasized that there is collaboration and compromise among members and non-members in the Northfield area when it comes to promoting businesses but that it is, of course, impossible to always cater to the specific needs of any one business.
Feldbrugge added that the Chamber’s capabilities depend on the amount of money the non-profit has to spend on things that could help the area’s business owners, and the budget is only growing tighter. This past December, Feldbrugge said, the Chamber lost a small amount of money by putting on the Winter Walk shopping event and the Chamber’s membership has dropped slightly. She did not reveal specific figures. One reason membership could be going down, she said, is more people might be donating to the Chamber only when it organizes an event that could directly benefit them.
Feldbrugge said the Winter Walk is one of the Chamber’s most successful achievements each year. The event appears to be distinctive as there are no comparable winter events listed on the Chamber of Commerce Web sites of such similar communities as Faribault, Red Wing and Stillwater, for example. This year, the four-hour Thursday evening affair celebrated its tenth anniversary. The event featured special retail and restaurant offers, a parade, music and face-painting among other activities.
Extremely cold temperatures, and perhaps a troubled economy, kept many people indoors during the latest walk, however. And the Northfield News reported mixed successes the year before in 2007, saying, “According to Krin Finger, owner of The Rare Pair, business and store traffic was up from last year, and Jerry Bilek, owner of Monkey See Monkey Read, said that business was up 10 percent from a year ago. But across the street at Anna’s Closet, owner Lucy Sweitzer said that traffic and business were down. ‘Other years, you couldn’t get through the door,’ she said. ‘Not so much this year.'”
There are 254 individual and business group members of the Chamber of Commerce listed on its Web site. (There is no published, complete listing of businesses in Northfield and Dundas, so it would be difficult to determine what percentage of businesses in the area are Chamber members). About 2/3 of the Chamber’s members actively participate on a regular basis, Feldbrugge said. In 2007, the membership “dues and assessments” amounted to $136,159, according to the non-profit’s 990 IRS form. The form indicated total revenue was about $373,000. Total expenses were about $346,000.
In addition to membership fees, Feldbrugge said revenue comes from “programs, events and services that our Chamber sponsors and provides. This revenue represents fees, contributions and sponsorships that help pay for these programs, events and services.”
About $6,690 went to the Chamber via the city government in 2008. The city paid $5,000 for a marketing seminar, a $925 membership fee and contributed to the Winter Walk. In compliance with state law, the city paid $82,821 in lodging tax revenue in 2008 to the Northfield Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. The Chamber’s staff also help run the bureau, along with the bureau’s board of directors. The tax dollars are spent on developing Northfield’s tourism industry by producing brochures and maintaining a Web site, among other things, according to Feldbrugge.
According to the IRS form, Feldbrugge received $51,960 as compensation for her year’s work at the Chamber. The Chamber also employs one full-time administrative assistant and one part-time office assistant. There are currently nine people on the board of directors, she said. Sometimes there are 10 board members. Jeff Hasse of the Country Inn is the Chamber’s president.
The Chamber calculates the cost of membership using a sliding scale. The minimum base payment is $295. As a comparison, the base payment for the nearby Faribault Area Chamber of Commerce is $310.
Extra help for downtown district
While the Chamber answers to business owners across all parts of Northfield and Dundas, another Northfield non-profit specifically acts as a resource for business people in the city’s historic downtown area. According to its Web site, the Northfield Downtown Development Corporation (NDDC) was founded in 2000 by Northfield residents who sought to “realize their vision of a vibrant and vital downtown through direct and indirect investment, collaboration and cooperation with other public and private groups and by creating awareness of the opportunities that downtown Northfield holds for the community as a whole.” The idea for the NDDC came from discussions among members of the Chamber of Commerce.
Five of the people surveyed who volunteer with the NDDC on a regular basis wrote down their thoughts on the organization, expressing praise and mild criticism.
Schanilec, of By All Means Graphics, said, “I joined the NDDC Board of Directors because I believe they directly affect downtown businesses with their activities (networking, festivals, etc.), facilitate discussion/action (task forces, forums, etc.) and make a difference in the viability of downtown and the community as a whole (tax legislation, city ordinances such as downtown dining, bike racks, signage, etc.).”
Jenny Turek, owner of Sisters Ugly clothing boutique in Bridge Square, said, “I want to help brainstorm and implement ideas and events that may draw more people to town.”
Beeby of Just Food said, “We attend NDDC forums, because they are a convenient way for us to stay in touch with the local business community and related issues.”
Butler, of the Contented Cow pub, said, “The NDDC is as effective as it can be, given its limited budget and the politics of Northfield.”
Nicole Maloney, owner of Sweet Pea’s Loft on Division Street, said, “I joined because I believe downtown needs a louder voice than one individual business can advertise. The NDDC sponsors events and helps advertise. I have moderate satisfaction with the NDDC.”
Bilek, of Monkey See, Monkey Read, said, “The Midwest Booksellers Association is great. The NDDC: They believe in downtown and so do I. I am satisfied with both organizations and I believe both could do more.”
“Frankly, the NDDC’s greatest achievement may be that we’re celebrating our tenth year in 2009,” Ross Currier, the executive director for six years, said in an email. “Seriously, we’ve grown in both resources and activities and continue to be able to attract some of the most impressive people in the community to work with us. Bringing people together and raising community awareness of critical issues is probably step one in everything we do.”
Currier is also a blogger on LocallyGrownNorthfield.org.
The NDDC’s budget is about $100,000, which is about five times larger than the budget was in 2003. About $40,000 comes from the city government and about $60,000 comes from public donations. Currier is the only paid employee and earns a flat $50,000 a year. There are 12 board members, about two dozen volunteers who work on committees and hundreds of volunteers who help organize community events, Currier said.
Currier said the NDDC follows the “Four Points” of the National Trust for Historic Preservation Main Street Program, which is a “comprehensive commercial district revitalization strategy that has been widely successful in towns and cities nationwide,” according to the program’s Web site. The four points are organization, promotion, design and economic restructuring. Even with the four-point structure, however, opinions vary in Northfield and nationwide about the best way to garner support for a downtown area.
As evidenced in a Wall Street Journal article published in June about Annapolis, Md., some people support a direct investment into the downtown area with restrictions on outside growth and other people believe growth beyond the downtown will draw more traffic into the area and cause more people to trickle down the main street.
“Bob Burdon, president of the Annapolis and Anne Arundel County Chamber of Commerce, said that Annapolis Towne Centre, [which is a shopping center outside of the downtown that includes a Target and Whole Foods store] ‘can have a very positive impact on the downtown’ if the city works ‘to realize the spinoff benefit that’s going to come from it.'”
Meanwhile, the report said, “The city of Annapolis witnesses closures of businesses such as Johnson’s On the Avenue, a renowned Annapolis haberdashery that operated for 70 years across from the State House. Citing the growth of local shopping malls and the increased difficulty of parking in downtown Annapolis, the family-owned shop closed in January.”
Abby Erickson, an advertising sales manager for the Northfield Entertainment Guide who regularly visits businesses throughout the city, offered this observation on the matter:
“Some people think that downtown overshadows greater Northfield. The downtown is a hub for events and culture, and when you come here it is an experience that many towns can’t offer so it makes us stand out. Still, we want to draw as many people with different interests here as possible.”
The Government’s Role
In addition to interacting with the Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Development Corporation, business owners can also turn to the city government for help in some cases. No one surveyed talked about receiving help via the Northfield Economic Development Authority, but the five-member board, founded in 1990 to comply with a state law, has the power to negotiate grants or loans to help start new businesses or develop ones that already exist. Every year, the authority has the ability to distribute up to $30,000 in “micro-grants” to businesses, with each grant totaling no more than $5,000.
Handing out dollars is just one way the Economic Development Authority strives to reach its overarching objectives, which include the following:
- Unite leadership of the concerned groups within the community to develop a clear expression of priorities and programs for economic development
- Develop a strategy for future development based on the area’s strengths and assets
- Retain viable existing Northfield businesses by evaluating and addressing their needs
- Attract new commercial and industrial growth
- Encourage and support commercial development city-wide, with an emphasis on downtown
The 2009 budget for the Development Authority is $444,784. Major expenses include $107,813 for work related to developing a future business park on the northwest border of the city, $107,813 for planning “infill” development and for marketing and public relations, $104,600 for the Chamber of Commerce, Northfield Downtown Development Corporation, the Northfield Enterprise Center and the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation, $65,498 to pay for personnel, $23,780 for “other services,” which include attorney fees, $4,500 for membership dues and $780 for supplies.
The Economic Development Authority claimed successes in 2008 by approving financial assistance for Upper Lakes Foods and Culvers Restaurant. However, the Development Authority did face some public questioning last year regarding its support of annexing 530 acres of Greenvale Township‘s land into the city. Skeptics wondered if paying to annex and prepare the land for industrial development would lead only to unnecessary spending of tax dollars. Proponents saw it as a good way to attract businesses that would one day pay taxes and create jobs. The City Council will voted on Monday, Feb. 16 to approve the annexation agreement. Northfield taxpayers will compensate Greenvale nearly $100,000 total for the property tax revenue Greenvale will cease to collect on that land.
In addition to grants and loans, the Economic Development Authority helped found an independent non-profit organization in 2001 called the Northfield Enterprise Center. The center’s mission is to “strengthen existing and start-up businesses located in, or locating to Northfield, by providing personalized business counseling services and information in a confidential, one-on-one setting,” according to its Web site. The non-profit currently receives all of its funding through the Development Authority. Its annual budget for 2008 was $49,983. The organization has one employee, Blake Abdella, who has an annual salary of about $28,750. The Enterprise Center spends about $4,000 to pay college interns.
Although few surveyed mentioned anything about the Enterprise Center either, one anonymous business owner who refused to hand in the survey voiced concern that the center had limited resources and a high demand for services. The center’s occasional interns, the owner worried, could set up a counseling session with a potential business owner and wind up talking that entrepreneur out of going forward if he or she could not provide enough basic information.
Abdella said he is indeed busy with dozens of clients a year, but that the Enterprise Center is a way for business owners to gain a good understanding about basic business principles in a way that wasn’t available before the center opened. It’s also a continuing, free resource for existing businesses that are looking to improve. Abdella noted The Sketchy Artist, now in business for over one year, as a particular success story. Abdella has counseled owner Ripka, a Saint Olaf College graduate, since before the arts supply and gift store opened.
What business owners and managers want
More “Shop Locally” advertisement
- “The best thing organizations and other members of the Northfield community can do to help businesses is to patronize them,” Mahowald wrote. “If they have a good experience, spread the word. Most community members do not realize how much of the local tax burden is picked up by its businesses. I rent my store and pay close to $12,000 a year in property taxes. I think Northfield could help could increase its business by promoting all of the benefits of buying local. Our leaders need to make people aware of the benefits (and there are many) of shopping locally.”
- “Shop and eat local,” an anonymous survey responder wrote. “Don’t just say it. Do it.”
- Yet another anonymous responder wrote, “Try to help keep the consumers’ dollars local through events and promotions. Help with advertising Northfield locally and in surrounding areas.”
- “The obvious two ways people in Northfield can help is to promote the businesses in town and buy locally. And I really feel Northfield does a great job of this,” Roy wrote.
More and better advertising, especially beyond Northfield
- “Join forces and funds with organizations and businesses with similar goals to increase overall business traffic in Northfield,” Maloney wrote. “Advertising as a whole, we need to let the rest of the cities know that we are here and what we have. Stillwater, White Bear Lake, Edina and others all have an organization that does mass marketing on a regional and local level using radio, TV and the Internet. Why not Northfield?”
- “I think it’d be great to see the city come up with a campaign to promote itself outside the immediate area,” Ripka wrote. “Some of the businesses in the past year have pooled together to take out an ad in the Twin Cities and other areas, but we can’t always afford much else. An ad here and there won’t be as effective as a larger campaign.”
- “I believe that if more of us business owners collaborated together and partnered up for events or cross promote our businesses we may be more successful,” Welch wrote. “It’s not easy or inexpensive to market our businesses individually and this could ease that cost and show that we want to support our community together.”
- “I think the Northfield News needs to try to do more to help local businesses,” another anonymous responder wrote. ” They want your advertising dollars but do nothing in return to tell about new business in town or how businesses help the city of Northfield.”
- “The organizations in town do little to communicate the expertise we have in town,” said an anonymous business person. “I am continually amazed by the brains we have here and surprised because there is little format to get that information out.”
Increased information sharing, market research
- “Organizations can provide a forum for businesses to get together, cooperate, and pool resources,” Beeby wrote in January’s survey. “The key here is making sure these sessions aren’t just a waste of time. For example, a local salary survey would be helpful in helping to get a sense of what appropriate pay levels are. Another example would be a conversation about joint advertising possibilities or joint training opportunities.”
- “All must realize that a thriving downtown means a thriving city and a decaying downtown is a dying city,” Butler wrote. “Realize also that the NDDC and NEC exist because the Chamber has done and continues to do a poor job. The Chamber’s continuing taken-for-granted existence and automatic lion’s-share of the money is why the NDDC and NEC are less effective than they could be. Realize that, to date, key senior city staff and downtown business and property owners are at loggerheads and that currently the city seeks to regulate and not enable downtown development. Listen to those people who have ‘skin in the game’ and support their initiatives.”
- “I believe that other members of the Northfield community whether it being other businesses or organizations can help promote any small business by WOM testimonials. WOM (word of mouth) recommendations can be the best asset any business has,” Erickson wrote.
- “Sixty percent of Northfielders do not shop downtown. We could do a better job of serving their needs,” Bilek wrote.
- “Keep business owners in the loop regarding opportunities whether it’s for relevant seminars, discounted merchandise (my wall panels for instance) or services that would be particularly beneficial to that business,” Schanilec wrote. “There’s a certain amount of having to be proactive in engaging business to tap into services. It’s not enough to simply post that they are out there.”
- There needs to be a sense of partnership, that I’ve discovered a valuable fit between this and your businesses and I’m going to help you tap it.”
We could use help from organizations willing to serve as interfaces between our farm, other farming operations in our area and the rural development division of the United States Department of Agriculture,” Haslett-Marroquin said. “We don’t have an organization doing this for our operation right now, but we are actively looking for an organization to do this for us.
What resources non-profits and the government plan on offering in 2009
Northfield Area Chamber of Commerce
The Chamber of Commerce released its goals for 2009 last month in its newsletter. The goals fall into five categories that include economic and business development, public policy, membership, tourism and internal operations. The economic development goals are as follows:
- Provide a leadership initiative to support government officials to annex and zone commercial and industrial land for development
- Be active in local transportation planning
- Conduct business retention and expansion visits and interviews with local company leaders
- Provide information and assistance to local and prospective businesses
The public policy goals are as follows:
- Urge members to contact legislators about issues that could affect their business
- Define and develop relationships with the government
Membership goals include:
- Contact members regarding their business needs
- Promote benefits
- Contact prospective members
Tourism goals are:
- Respond to visitor requests for information
- Update brochures and Web site
- Develop ways to generate additional local lodging tax dollars and other types of revenue for the Convention and Visitors Bureau
Internal operations goals include:
- Review committees, programs and events
- Review membership dues structure
- Consider succession planning for executive director
Northfield Downtown Development Corporation
Currier said there are several plans to improve the NDDC, which are posted on the Web. Some of the “Work Plan ’09” goals include:
- Collect more precise market data
- Do more with dollars spent on marketing
- Help remove obstacles to business expansion
- Collaborate with others for increased leverage of resources
- Pursue an idea to better promote Northfield’s assets and offerings to graduates of Saint Olaf and Carleton Colleges
Northfield Economic Development Authority
The authority’s five top priorities for 2009 according to their work plan document:
- Improve the city’s marketing and public relations
- Develop policies and economic development tools such as loans and grants
- Create a master plan for a proposed business park
- Focus on opportunities for infill and redevelopment
Northfield Enterprise Center
- The center issued a quarterly report in November that contained three pages of objectives. A few of the goals included:
- Promote the center’s services
- Improve online services
- Collaborate with students from Saint Olaf and Carleton Colleges
Do needs and services match up?
All of the non-profits serving Northfield’s businesses and the city-run Economic Development Authority are earning praise and facing criticism from the people they intend to help. Each of the entities has formed goals in an attempt to improve in the coming year. Some of their goals match up with what 20 business owners and managers said they needed in a survey they completed last month. For example, the Northfield Area Chamber of Commerce is looking to improve its communication with members and “potential members.” The Northfield Downtown Development Corporation intends to perform more market research. The Northfield Economic Development Authority hopes to strengthen relationships between organizations with shared economic goals. The Northfield Enterprise Center will help disseminate important information for business owners throughout the city.
” This is a nice sampling of the thinking of the business community,” Currier said of the survey results, adding that most of the responses expressed concerns he has been familiar with.
Addressing the apparent interest in “shop locally” advertising, Currier said, ” I know that the Chamber and the NDDC are currently marshaling more collaborative efforts for their “Shop Local” efforts, that at least three of the Four Partners are trying to get more leverage out of the local market represented by middle school students, high school
students, and college students.”
As for increased advertisement beyond Northfield, he said, “The Four Partners are looking into more effectively targeting the community’s promotional dollars outside of Northfield.”
Concluding his response to the survey results, Currier said, “I think that the Four Partners show at least some recognition of the talent available in the community. Our boards are made up of that local talent. There are many ideas out there, and the range is wide and deep. Our collaborative efforts include trying to identify the most promising ideas, in our collective ‘wisdom,’ and put our combined resources behind those ideas.”
To view the fully completed surveys and for more information about the process of how this story came together, visit my Representative Journalism Project blog here.