“The people have spoken. Let’s make these projects into priorities.” *
When established businesses stagnate, fail, downsize, or relocate elsewhere, communities may also experience negative ripple effects that include a cascade of other business failures, utility rate hikes, and strains on social services, schools, and families.Conversely, research shows that a thriving local economy makes that community attractive to new business ventures considering setting up shop there.
It makes sense to pay close attention to keeping those businesses in town and encouraging them to expand locally.
That’s why Cooperative Extension pioneered what’s called the Business Retention and Expansion (BR&E) model of community economic development in the mid-1980s. From its origins at Ohio State Extension in 1986, the BR&E model has spread throughout the U.S. and much of the world.
How it works
At its heart, a BR&E initiative is a planning-to-action process that enables a community to survey local businesses, analyze the strengths and weaknesses of its business environment, and set priorities for action that will help keep local businesses thriving and growing.
In the original Cooperative Extension model, the initiative typically begins with a local “sparkplug” who sees both a need and the possibilities for improving the environment for local businesses.
This person—a county extension agent, a business leader, or a professional from a local economic development office—galvanizes a small core of local folks to form a BR&E leadership team.
That leadership team serves as a volunteer steering committee for the overall process and recruits a volunteer task force of anywhere from 9-30 citizens representing diverse sectors of the community.
The task force and leadership team collaborate to develop a detailed questionnaire and a list of key businesses to survey.
After a brief training and ideally a practice visit, teams of two (an interviewer and a recorder) conduct face-to-face interviews with key personnel of the businesses chosen to participate in the survey.
Following each survey, the task force meets to review it and decide how to address any ”red flag” issues, serious problems, or requests for information that surfaced during the survey process (e.g., an employer considering leaving town or downsizing, unreliable or inadequate electricity or water supplies, major transportation or communications infrastructure problems). Red flags call for immediate action.
Aided perhaps by outside experts, the team analyzes the data, develops and sets priorities for action steps that address business concerns, and assigns specific people to take responsibility for carrying them out. Action steps might include help securing a loan or establishing a new-employee training program, developing a branding/marketing campaign, improving a transportation corridor, creating new signage or publishing a visitor’s guidebook.
The community publishes a summary report, showing both key data and key priority projects (i.e. action steps), and circulates this widely.
The research and priority-setting process generally takes nine months to a year. Depending on its goals, completing the action steps—the implementation phase—may take two or three years or even longer. Some communities update and deliver the survey every few years.
Pioneering Programs: Ohio and Minnesota
Ohio State Extension counts BR&E among its “signature programs” and has conducted more than 140 BR&E projects in 79 of the state’s 88 counties since 1986.
“BR&E is integral to any community for understanding how their community ticks,” says David Civittolo, a field specialist in community economics at Ohio State University Extension. Civittolo came to extension in 2000 after years of on-the-job training as village manager in four different towns.
Ohio has modified the original BR&E model somewhat to accommodate changing business preferences and to take advantage of online communication tools. “We've found that business managers these days prefer an online survey,“ he says. “We send out as many as 500 surveys, and we usually get 40 percent to 60 percent returns.
“Of those, 15 percent to 25 percent want to meet with someone face-to-face. We send teams of two to conduct interviews with those firms.”
An important aspect of the BR&E process, Civittolo says, is that “business owners feel they’re being heard, there’s a formal recognition of [their issues].”
“A BR&E typically dramatically boosts a community's self-awareness,” Civittolo says. The process can turn up unexpected surprises, too. “On one local task force, representatives of two big industries didn’t know that the other was right down the road, or that they could buy materials from each other. [That awareness] saved both of them time and money.”
Michael Darger directs the Business Retention and Expansion program at the University of Minnesota Extension's Center for Community Vitality.The Minnesota program started with the BR&E approach George Morse, retired University of Minnesota professor, pioneered in the mid-1980s in Ohio.
However, the program changed in a number of significant ways based on feedback from community leaders and evaluation research. For example, twelve new approaches were aimed at improving the follow-up implementation of the local strategic BR&E Plans.
Since 1990, the Minnesota program has completed more than 65 BR&E projects. Yet, “In Minnesota we have upwards of 100,000 businesses, maybe closer to 200,000 depending on how you count,” Darger says. I doubt more than 2,000 to 4,000 of them have received a BR&E visit. Lots of opportunity there.”
Darger points to one of the big advantages of BR&E projects: “They promote values of community sustainability and self-efficacy. People across the political spectrum can come together around these values.
“Plus, there’s so much vitality within the core of existing businesses. If that group is happy, it’s going to attract other businesses to the area.
Visitation: the heart of BR&E
“The core of any good BR&E process involves visitation,” says Darger. “Two people, usually from the task force and often from outside the business community, visit each selected business to ask the survey questions face to face.”
Good candidates for a BR&E survey and visitation include “any business that brings money into a community and offers opportunity for expansion,” says Kathleen Tweeten, the current and founding director of the North Dakota State University Extension Center for Community Vitality. “Manufacturing, food processing, agriculture, retail, services, tourism-related enterprises."
Deep listening is the heart of the visitation process. “It’s important that BR&E visitors don’t do anything but interview and record the answers,” Tweeten says.
“Feedback reveals that businesses really appreciate someone coming and talking to them. It’s a personal conversation between the business owner/manager and the interviewer," she says.“Sometimes the information you’re writing in the margins is more important than the actual answer to the question.”
“In a high-tech world, high-touch still matters,” says Darger. “So whether a community BR&E uses professionals or volunteers, survey software and iPads or pen and paper, a broad-based task force or a smaller group--the key point is that visiting your local businesses is important for economic development.
“Of course, doing something useful with the information gained is crucial,” he adds.
George Morse, who developed the original BR&E process, says, “We used to mail them out in advance and come to the visit with a completed copy in hand. When we’d go through it in person, there might be two or three people from the firm at the meeting, one guy will say, ‘That response at number x—it’s not really that way,’ and go on to give you a lot more specific information.
“Plus, people will tell you in much more pungent terms what’s on their mind when you’re face-to-face.”
Charting, evaluating BR&E outcomes
Minnesota uses a tool called Ripple Effect Mapping, a mind-map that captures and visually displays the entire BR&E process and its outcomes, connecting them in a single plane.
Cheap, simple, and well-suited for communicating complex undertakings, ripple-effect mapping also lends itself to ongoing expansion as impacts continue to accumulate.
Highlighting the benefits of evaluating ongoing Cooperative Extension BR&E programs, Greg Davis, assistant director of Ohio State extension’s community development program reports on a survey of 12 local Ohio BR&E coordinators invited to provide evaluation input on programs between 2008 and 2010.
Six (not necessarily the same six each year) responded annually.
Here’s a sample of the aggregated quantitative data from 2,140 existing businesses surveyed:
3,414 estimated total jobs created and retained as a result of BR&E involvement
136 community officials used local data collected during their BR&E program to inform community decisions
$130 million estimated annual personal income contributed to Ohio economy as a result of jobs created and retained through the BR&E process.
"The value of a successful BR&E project expands beyond the strategic goals of the process in terms of jobs and income," says Darger. “Cooperative Extension has always had a strong focus on building social capital, and BR&E work both builds upon and increases social capital within a community.”
BR&E goes international
In 1994, a group of extension and economic development professionals founded Business Retention and Expansion International (BREI) with the aim of providing leadership resources, education, and networking opportunities for economic development.
“At that time, BR&E programs were being run primarily by extension agents and some public utilities,” says Tweeten, a charter member of the organization. “We felt there was a real need to get local economic developers actively involved in the program.”
“We've trained participants from all over the world,” Tweeten says. “We've had many Canadians, and also a few from South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand,” where the program is called BEAR, and where more than 70 urban and rural communities have taken advantage of the BEAR resources.
Looking to the future
A generation later, many versions of the well-tested BR&E process thrive across the nation. Many of them have migrated into local, county, and state economic development offices and become less reliant on local volunteers and more on paid staff (e.g., San Antonio, Texas).
“Here in Minnesota, the future involves Extension partnering with other entities to learn together about BR&E techniques,” says Darger.
“For example, a partnership is emerging with the Grow Minnesota! program, which works with local chambers statewide to conduct about 1,000 business visits annually. Grow Minnesota’s strength is individual follow-up assistance to businesses. Extension’s strength is giving the community a comprehensive look at issues facing businesses writ large. With complementary yet different approaches, both entities seek to inform and improve economic development practice and policy.”
Cooperative Extension and BREI “have trained a lot of local economic development professionals over the past 20 years,” says Greg Davis, assistant director of Ohio State Extension’s community development program.
“In one sense, what we think of as the traditional BR&E represents an entry-level program when it comes to economic research these days. The level of sophistication at the local level has evolved to the point where many communities now feel comfortable doing it on their own.
“Our goal now is to find communities that don’t have the resources to do their own BR&E work.” And increasingly, “We’re engaging at a higher level with communities, doing more narrowly focused, need-based projects--for example help understanding and manipulating complex data, or using geospatial tools and mapping.”
Davis says he has plans in the works to host a conference that brings together folks who’ve worked on BR&E programs both within and outside of Ohio since 1986, to discuss how their models have evolved. “We’ll look briefly to the past, discuss what’s happening now, and look to the future,” he says.
* From a BR&E case study, city of Owatonna, Minnesota
Business Retention and Expansion Visitation Fundamentals Recent update of the original BR&E materials. Comprehensive 35-page manual.
Business Retention and Expansion (BRE) series From the University of Florida Cooperative Extension, a comprehensive introduction to BRE in 10 brief “chapters.”
Retaining and Expanding Business in Your Community Video introduction from Minnesota Extension.
BRE Question Bank Suggestions for survey questions often included in BR&E projects.
How Successful are BR&E Implementation Efforts? A Four-State Example 1995 paper points to weakness of BR&E programs in executing the action steps in the process identified.
Photo: Courtesy University of Minnesota Cooperative Extension