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Kathleen Tweeten, director, NDSU Extension Center for Community Vitality, Published September 17 2012

Spotlight on Economics: Business retention, expansion programs strengthen communities

Business retention and expansion (BR&E) is an economic development strategy that focuses on retaining and expanding existing businesses in today's global economy. Strengthening a community's economic vitality requires three primary strategies.

Recruitment is the first strategy that many people think of and, most of the time, it is the most expensive of all strategies. The other two strategies are growth from within, or entrepreneurship, and BR&E. The most economical strategy is BR&E, and it typically gets the quickest results.

Many ways are available to assist individual businesses, but communities have only one way to look at the local business environment as a whole: conduct a formal BR&E program. This means using a consistent set of questions with each business so you can aggregate the results.

This doesn't mean that visiting individual businesses and following up on the needs of those businesses doesn't have great value. It does! However, using a survey tool gives you a way to look at all the businesses surveyed to see the most common needs and trends affecting businesses in your area.

Two methods most often are used to conduct formal BR&E programs in communities. One process is led by volunteers. These are people who work in businesses, government and education and include other professionals who care about the business community. The other is economic developer-led, but it still involves a number of other professionals to conduct visits, follow up on business requests and develop a strategic plan based on business needs.

Research has shown in several studies that volunteer-led programs do work.

However, economic developer-led programs are more successful and sustainable. Developer-led programs become part of the economic developer's regular work, so the program receives consistent attention and follow-up occurs in the process.

A BR&E program consists of two major phases: the initial phase of visiting and following up on individual business needs, and the next phase of aggregating the data from all the businesses to look at the common needs and the economic and other trends affecting them. A strategic plan is written and implemented to address these broad-based needs.

The visits can be done by just the economic developer and staff, but this can take a long time to complete, so to get that snapshot in time of the business environment, economic development experts recommend that other professionals be trained in the survey process so they can conduct the survey visits. Data then can be collected from all the businesses to be surveyed in a short time.

Whatever process is used depends on the resources of the community. However, the bottom line is that paying attention to the needs of your existing businesses is important to the economic sustainability and growth of all communities, no matter how small or large.

For more information on how to conduct a BR&E visitation program, contact me at the NDSU Extension Center for Community Vitality at kathleen.tweeten@ndsu.edu. To learn how to become a certified BR&E coordinator through Business Retention and Expansion International, go to http://www.brei.org. Online certification will be available beginning in October 2012.