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APEX: Targeted Growth and Top-Notch Technology

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

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Growing up in Grand Rapids, on Minnesota’s Iron Range, Brian Hanson learned lessons about the importance of economic diversification early. The region has rich iron deposits and other mineral resources. Its mining industry has weathered tumultuous boom and bust cycles, particularly in the 1980s.

As a resident, Hanson witnessed firsthand how devastating mine shutdowns could be — not just for miners and their families but also for the region as a whole. He carried this memory with him as he embarked on a career in economic development.

After college, Hanson worked for over 15 years in various business and community development roles with different entities, including the State of Minnesota, ALLETE (also known as Minnesota Power) and the City of Duluth.

He gained a broad range of expertise that set him up for his current role.

Since 2012, Hanson has been president and CEO of APEX (Area Partnership for Economic Expansion), a business development group that serves a seven-county area in northeast Minnesota and three counties in northwest Wisconsin. APEX spends about half of its time helping existing companies grow and half of its time on recruiting specific industries to the area.

Targeted industry growth

Hanson’s experiences taught him to be cautious about depending too much on any one industry to grow the economy. “I think we have some basic industries that will always have a place in our region,” he says, noting the long history of forest production and mining in the area. “But diversification is really important.”

APEX’s vision is carefully targeted and its new industry prospects are meticulously researched. While many economic development groups take a shotgun approach to attracting companies, APEX looks first to existing industries and tries to determine how to complement them and help them grow.

A prime example of this is Involta. After identifying a need for secure data storage across several local industry clusters, including healthcare and banking, APEX helped to successfully attract this first-class data center to Duluth.

Involta opened in 2012 and has since expanded to meet the needs of a growing customer base. Having a data center in the community doesn’t just complement existing businesses. Its presence makes it much more appealing for tech-based companies to relocate to the region.

Cultivating a cluster

APEX makes a point of leveraging existing assets. This resourcefulness has been instrumental in building Duluth’s aviation industry. When Northwest Airlines shuttered a Duluth aircraft maintenance facility, APEX saw an opportunity. Duluth was already home to Cirrus, the company that launched the world’s first single-engine personal jet.

After some intensive research, Hanson says APEX, the City of Duluth and other partners came up with about 25 companies in the world capable of taking on such a facility. They hired an industry expert and started by strategically approaching the least intimidating of the companies, learning along the way about what it would take to attract such a major investor to the region.

AAR was the final company on the list and the last one the team approached. They convinced the company to do a site visit, which included a welcoming tour from Cirrus. “To their credit, Cirrus told AAR ‘Duluth is the place for you. You should come to our community; it will help both of us. We can grow aviation here together,’” says Hanson.

The company signed a lease on the facility in 2012. It now employs about 400 people in Duluth. A cluster of aviation-focused suppliers, services, and manufacturers continues to grow in the region. And because of this growing aviation sector, Lake Superior College is able to offer Federal Aviation Administration-certified training for airframe and powerplant or A&P mechanics.

“That’s an example of the power of a cluster,” says Hanson.

High tech recruitment tools

APEX doesn’t stop at recruiting companies; it also recruits individuals. Hanson points out that available skilled labor is a critical factor for both existing and new businesses.

With this in mind, APEX collaborated with Northspan Group to create NORTHFORCE.org, a dynamic website aimed at connecting talent with opportunities. Job seekers can search the regional database, sign up to receive tailored job prospects and learn about professional development events. Recruiting employers can expect to be connected with the best quality candidates. NORTHFORCE markets to talented individuals who want to live in the region through social media and events — growing the regional talent pool.

NORTHFORCE’s success in attracting talent to the area will be bolstered by powerful new technology. APEX has partnered with Golden Shovel Agency to use PlaceVR — a virtual site tour of the region made with 360 video.

The virtual reality tour highlights existing industry and infrastructure and paints a stunning picture of the area’s quality of life. This groundbreaking approach gives viewers a totally immersive experience that Hanson says will enhance its competitive edge in attracting businesses and talent.

“It’s a great recruiting tool for our regional communities when we’re trying to recruit people from outside the area who are weighing the benefits of other communities. They can see what we have to offer without coming here.”

Hanson envisions the virtual site tours will distinguish APEX from the competition at trade shows. “Say you’re doing business with someone from Korea. Chances are they may have heard of Minneapolis. They might know of Lake Superior but they probably don’t know the region,” he says. “You can pull up the VR video to show them and get them excited immediately about what we have to offer here.”

Site selection industry professionals have told Hanson the APEX region is “the best-kept secret in the country,” which solidifies his resolve to find powerful new methods like Place VR to best tell the region’s story.

To find out more about PlaceVR, check out our upcoming webinar here.

Category: blog, Economic Development News, PlaceVR



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