Client Spotlight - Katie Heppner
5 Apr 2021
News, Blog, Client Spotlight
Meet Katie Heppner!
Katie Heppner is the Executive Director at the West Central Economic Development Alliance (the Economic Alliance), the economic development corporation that serves Wadena County, MN. Prior to that, she held leadership roles in local governments throughout Greater Minnesota. She is a proud Maverick, having earned both her B.S. in Political Science and Masters in Public Administration from Minnesota State University Mankato. In 2020, she had the honor of receiving the Emerging Leader of the Year Award from the Economic Development Association of Minnesota. She has a deep passion for rural engagement and serves on several boards, including the Brainerd Dispatch Advisory Board, the North Central Economic Development Association Full Corporation, the Central Lakes College Foundation, and serves as the Chair of the Staples-Motley Area Community Foundation.
Getting Into Economic Development
Katie fell in love with community and economic development at a very young age. Growing up on the Iron Range, she saw first-hand the influence that businesses and the economy had on the community and people’s everyday lives. Even more so, she saw the power of community organizing and engagement in bringing community members together to overcome the challenges that came with living in a boom-and-bust economy. She was an active volunteer throughout her youth and knew that she wanted to turn her passion into a career. Katie notes, “Studying political science and public administration gave me the tools I needed to successfully engage on a grassroots level and advocate for larger initiatives and policy changes.” Today, she is proud to work in economic development in a rural county in Minnesota.
Working with the West Central Economic Development Alliance
Working with a great cross-section of people is Katie's favorite thing about her job. One day she is connecting with local growers and makers on how to turn their hobbies into small businesses, and the next day she is having meetings with real estate developers looking to start larger-scale projects in the community. This gives her the opportunity to learn about new topics and think about a variety of issues that face the community and local economy. “An added benefit is that, as my network grows, I have the ability to pull-together different folks who bring their own talents to the table to work on County-wide initiatives,” Katie says.
While Katie loves the variety of the projects she gets to work on, she recognizes that almost all community issues have an economic development component. Instead of focusing solely on business attraction, retention, and expansion, she also works extensively on a growing list of issues, most notably workforce, child care, and housing. Balancing all of these priorities and ensuring that each issue is given its due attention can be stressful at times, especially as she is the organization’s only staff member. “To overcome this, I rely on a network of community leaders to help me move the needle on each topic and try to set clear, tangible project goals and outcomes so that we do not get lost in the weeds,” says Katie.
One of Katies greatest successes was the community’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In March 2020, they formed the Todd-Wadena Outreach Team to proactively connect with business owners in Todd and Wadena County. This team had official ‘guided conversations’ with 78 businesses between March and April that were logged into a tracking database for future reference, as well as countless other informal conversations. They developed resource guides to help connect folks with grants and loans, shared tactics for developing a preparedness plan, and answered questions about reopening regulations. In addition to this one-on-one work, they also created opportunities for communication and information sharing amongst community members. This included regularly scheduled virtual coffee talks, with guest speakers and round-robin community updates, and a radio town hall to share broader economic impact information. “Working with business owners during their most trying times both humbling and inspiring. 2020 certainly highlighted the incredibly important role that our business play not only in our economy but in our sense of community,” Katie describes. The coffee talks are still being held on a bi-weekly basis and we are continuing to reach out and connect businesses with needed resources.
Advice for Other Economic Developers
Never let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
When Katie was fresh out of graduate school, she recalled, “I would get really hung up on designing the perfect program or policy. I wanted everything to be ‘textbook,’ so that no one could scrutinize it.” Unfortunately, as we all know, nothing in the real world pleases everyone. In addition, time constraints, lack of resources, and a million other factors make it difficult to design a project like it was in a laboratory. However, that does not mean that since a project cannot be perfect, that it should not be done at all. Katie suggests, “You simply need to do what you can with what you have.” Understandingly, this might lead to a series of smaller projects over a longer period of time, but real change comes from persistent and incremental efforts. After all, there is no silver bullet that will solve every issue.
During her free time, Katie enjoys hiking and exploring all of the recreation opportunities Minnesota has to offer. “My husband, Erich, and I are a part of the Minnesota State Park Passport Club and have been to 70 of the 75 State Park and Recreation Areas,” Katies says. “Our goal is to finish the remaining 5 parks this summer with our 6-month-old son, Henry, and our two Bernese Mountain dogs, Ralph and Rascal.
Partnering With Golden Shovel Agency
In an effort to recognize some of the greatest economic developers we work with, we share these client spotlights to inspire you and give you insights into the successes and challenges they face.
At Golden Shovel Agency, we know that you want to be a respected leader of a growing community. Our goal is to help you get there. We understand how frustrating it can be to not get noticed or to fall behind the competition. That’s why we focus on organizations like yours. Economic Development is what we live and breathe. We currently support over 230 organizations across the U.S., Canada, and the Caribbean.
Know someone who is doing amazing economic development work? Let us know by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. We’d really love to hear from you!
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