Org. to Create Brand for Twin Cities, Attract Jobs

A conglomerate of local business leaders is seeking funding and a new leader for a start-up-through which it plans to create a unified brand for the Twin Cities and attract jobs to the area.

The Itasca Project-a group of local business executives, public-sector officials, and leaders from area foundations-is in the process of launching a new nonprofit organization aimed at building a brand for the Twin Cities region and supporting job growth.

Kathy Schmidlkofer, a finance executive at Golden Valley-based General Mills, Inc., who has helped lead the initiative, said in a Friday phone interview that the Itasca Project hopes to have the new organization up and running sometime around January, and it's currently seeking a leader.

The new organization, which has not yet been named, will operate as a distinct entity from the Itasca Project and will have its own board. It will encompass 13 counties, including 11 in Minnesota and two in western Wisconsin.

The group is seeking an initial $2.8 million in funding, but Schmidlkofer declined to comment on their progress. She said that the group hopes to start with a staff of about 12-with a goal to reach a $4 million annual budget and a staff of 20 within a few years.

Schmidlkofer said that the Twin Cities is one of the largest metro areas in the country that does not have a unified economic-development entity.

“We want this to be a private-public collaboration,” Schmidlkofer said, adding that about 70 percent of the funding will likely come from private-sector contributions and the remaining from public sources. St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman has earmarked $125,000 for the initiative in his 2011 budget, and Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak has committed $150,000 in his budget-both of which are subject to approval-Schmidlkofer said.

For its CEO and president, the start-up seeks a “dynamic, high_energy, strategically focused, metrics-driven executive who possesses strong sales and marketing expertise, and is passionate about driving sustainable job growth in the region,” according to Chicago-based DHR International-which has been retained by the Itasca Project in its executive search.

The Itasca Project's task force that is developing the new entity is led by Ken Powell, chairman and CEO of Golden Valley-based General Mills, Inc.; Marilyn Carlson Nelson, chairwoman of Minnetonka-based Carlson; and Doug Baker, CEO of St. Paul-based Ecolab, Inc.

In April, the Itasca Project released a job growth report for the Twin Cities region. The report indicated that the metro area's largest companies provide a great foundation for the region, but the relatively high cost of doing business in the area and “a culture that does not value entrepreneurs as strongly as other regions” has prevented the Twin Cities from attracting jobs.

The new organization will focus on “crafting and executing regional economic development practice, regional economic development strategy, and regional branding with the goal of supporting long-term economic viability and increasing sustainable jobs in the region.”