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.
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.
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.