St. Cloud: A New Era of Community Engagement
One was born in Somalia, the other in Marshall, Minnesota. On the surface, Hudda Ibrahim and Shannon Wiger may not seem to have much in common—with the exception of their adopted hometown. Both community leaders have chosen to make St. Cloud their home. Their passion for the city sums up a new vitality in the region, bringing together entrepreneurial spirit with community engagement.
“I was planning to move to Minneapolis,” says Wiger, director of business development for the Minneapolis- and St. Cloud-based law firm Moss & Barnett PA. Wiger is one of two partners running Spring Hill Capital, a firm that is renovating some of St. Cloud’s historic downtown buildings. She’s also helping launch a business incubator. While working for a year in Scotland, the 2004 College of St. Benedict graduate realized “how much I really appreciated the small-town feel of St. Cloud.” For Wiger, the mother of twin boys and a toddler, the region is not only a great place to raise a family; she sees “so many opportunities” for people to launch and grow businesses.
One of those new businesses is Filsan Consultant, founded by Ibrahim to connect the area’s growing East African community with local employers, most of which are clamoring for talented employees. Ibrahim has become one of the leaders of that community, thanks to her connections with businesses and nonprofits. She sums up her St. Cloud experience in a new book, From Somalia to Snow: How Central Minnesota Became Home to Somalis.
A few years ago, after earning a master’s degree at the University of Notre Dame and working in Washington, D.C., Ibrahim’s commitment to Central Minnesota took her back to the region where she came of age. “I wanted to be able to help the young people who look like me in this community,” she says.
From technology to health care to craft breweries, new businesses are starting up or moving in. New leaders are working together to build a vibrant community where everyone can succeed, including the thousands of “new Americans” who are raising families here.
What’s more, people are moving here. From 2000 to 2012, St. Cloud’s population grew by 11.3 percent, to 67,344. In the same period, the St. Cloud metropolitan statistical area (MSA) grew by 20.7 percent and is estimated to expand another 25 percent by 2030. (The City of St. Cloud makes up about 24 percent of the MSA’s population.)
But it wouldn’t be right to say the St. Cloud region is being “transformed.” It’s more accurate to say that the area’s leaders—both new and not-so-new—are building on a rock-solid civic and educational foundation.
Though quarrying is no longer the region’s dominant industry, there’s still enough of it to maintain St. Cloud’s “Granite City” nickname. These days, manufacturing contributes more to the area’s bottom line. Many of those manufacturers make products used in the agricultural sector, which has been a pillar of the regional economy since Minnesota became a state. Most of the region’s manufacturing firms serve national and, in many cases, international markets.
Of course, there are challenges, too. One of the region’s largest manufacturers, Electrolux, whose St. Cloud facility makes refrigerators for the Sweden-based company, announced that it would be closing the plant in 2019. That will mean the loss of 900 good-paying jobs. After landing an airline carrier in 2014, St. Cloud Regional Airport lost it eight months later; it now no longer offers regular commercial passenger service. Then there’s the shortage of talented employees that just about every region in Minnesota is experiencing.
Regional leaders prefer to see these as opportunities. “Collaboration” and “partnership” are words you’ll hear again and again. That includes economic development, education, arts organizations, and the creation of new amenities that are bringing residents closer together. Perhaps the best example of this is the Workplace Well-Being Initiative, which has brought together businesses, government, colleges, and nonprofits, as well as health-based services and care providers. This partnership aims to improve residents’ health, while creating greater community cohesiveness.
The fact that St. Cloud is addressing challenges in conjunction with the surrounding communities such as Cold Spring, Sartell, Collegeville, Waite Park, Foley, and St. Joseph bespeaks a region that’s reaching across all kinds of borders and barriers to help the area thrive. “Everyone is connected and invested in our community,” Wiger says.
Downtown St. Cloud: Everything Old is New Again
As Central Minnesota’s largest city, St. Cloud has long been the region’s chief business and entertainment destination. In the decades after World War II, downtown St. Cloud, like many downtown districts across the country, lost investment to surrounding suburbs, where buildings were new and parking plentiful.
But now St. Cloud’s downtown is enjoying a renaissance. In the past decade, numerous organizations have been working to make downtown a destination for business and for fun. A crown jewel in that effort: Summertime by George. The free concert series, held every Wednesday throughout the summer months on Lake George, attracted a record 125,990 in 2018. In addition to music, the weekly events feature local craftspeople and children’s activities. The chief sponsor of Summertime by George is the St. Cloud Rotary Club.
Meanwhile, some of downtown St. Cloud’s most historic structures have been brought back to economic vibrancy. Much of the credit goes to younger entrepreneurs who love the charm and durability of the city’s older buildings.
“We want to put these buildings back into use so that they’re not a detriment to downtown, but rather are contributing to the economic development and vibrancy of the city,” says Shannon Wiger of St. Cloud-based Spring Hill Partners. She and her colleagues, Brian Schoenborn and Doug Boser, have been renovating several of the city’s grand old buildings.
Spring Hill’s largest project to date is the First National Bank building, constructed in 1889 and expanded 30 years later. “Our vision for that building was to return it to its key position in the community,” Wiger says. The bank was once “the key economic driver of our region—where all the deals were done.” The renovated building’s tenants are carrying on that tradition in their own way. They include the Greater St. Cloud Development Corp. (GSDC), the Initiative Foundation, and a branch of Kensington Bank (based in the nearby town of the same name).
All told, Spring Hill has renovated five buildings, with two more in process. And it’s not the only renovator in town. In 2017, the Letnes Restaurant Group converted an 1890 building that had seen better days into the Olde Brick House Pub, a popular Irish-themed venue. The same group is now updating the charming Pioneer Place building, a former Elks Club built in 1913.“A downtown is really a great way to take a community’s temperature,” Wiger says. It’s where a city’s arts and culture scenes typically cluster and where nightlife thrives (or should thrive). “We want that downtown historic area to be beautiful—to be something to be proud of,” she adds. “The stories that made our community what it is today all started in these buildings.”
Businesses Build on Success
Collaboration is the lifeblood of the Greater St. Cloud Development Corp. Founded in 2011, the GSDC is a group of leaders in business, education, government, philanthropy, and other sectors working together to boost the economic development efforts of the greater St. Cloud region, comprising Benton, Sherburne, and Stearns counties. It focuses on encouraging business growth and harnessing the area’s talent base, as well as supporting development of local amenities.
With the region continuing to grow and change, the GSDC recently updated its 2011 strategic plan to focus on six key areas: talent, transportation, downtown revitalization, innovation, business development, and workplace well-being. The two most significant outcomes from the update, according to GSDC president Patti Gartland, are increasing support of business startups and beefing up efforts to market the region. In other words, new opportunities for regional business collaboration.
The GSDC started with 55 businesses as “investors” and has since grown to 135. “We call them ‘executive volunteers,’ ” Gartland says. The group counts among its members such local pillars of industry as Germany-based agriculture equipment maker Geringhoff, which opened its first U.S. plant in 2012 in St. Cloud and has since added another product line to its manufacturing facility. Another key member is St. Cloud-based business-tech company Marco, which has posted double-digit revenue growth the past several years. Marco recently acquired Pennsylvania-based Phillips Office Solutions, expanding Marco’s market beyond the Midwest.
GSDC wants to build on success stories like these. One of its newest initiatives is an online community portal, greaterstcloud.com. The portal connects businesses to GSDC’s website for development assistance and links job seekers to JobSpot, which offers information about available positions in the region. “It provides a single point of contact for people looking for information about the region, whether it’s about businesses in the area, the education system, nightlife, or recreational opportunities,” Gartland says. And it helps boost regional businesses’ recruitment efforts from outside the region, she adds.
GSDC members serve on several committees that help increase workforce development, innovation, and public safety, among other issues. Members of the business development committee, for instance, focus on bringing organizations together to help existing businesses expand in the St. Cloud area, says committee chair Mike Markman, who is Midwest region president of U.S. Bank. Its activities have included working with the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) on applications for funding training programs, as well as facilitating partnerships between area companies.
“There are a lot of great organizations, including the nonprofits and arts organizations, that are working to make the region a great place to live as well as to work,” says Shelly Bauerly Kopel, a partner with St. Cloud-based private investment firm Granite Equity Partners.
Formed in 2002, Granite Equity invests in growing businesses in Greater Minnesota that provide both economic and philanthropic benefits to the communities in which they’re headquartered. Granite Equity currently has eight companies in its portfolio, including three in St. Cloud: valve manufacturer DeZurik Inc. (which celebrated its 90th year in business in 2018), tech developer GeoComm Inc., and biotech firm Microbiologics Inc.
The community-wide collaboration that stands out the most to Kopel is the Greater St. Cloud Workplace Well-Being Initiative, which launched in 2015. The initiative has brought together dozens of regional participants in business, local government, education, nonprofits, and health and wellness providers. The goal is to promote physical wellness, as well as career, financial, and social well-being.
One of the initiative’s first major projects was a 2015 survey of regional employers and employees. Businesses with 25 or more employees received an aggregated report outlining how well their employees were doing, what the company’s strengths were, and opportunities for improvement, Gartland says. A follow-up survey in 2017 revealed how well they had done in making those improvements. “What we found was we have made major increases in more than 35 well-being indicators,” she says.
Besides improving residents’ health, Kopel also sees the Well-Being Initiative as a way to attract and retain talent. “I believe, and there’s research that shows, that those team members will be more productive and more engaged at work,” she says. “And retention is higher in those organizations.”
From challenges to opportunities
In 2014, St. Cloud’s foreign-born population was 6.8 percent. In 2018, it had jumped to 9.4 percent; East Africans make up the largest component of this community. These new residents are eager to work. But there are barriers—language, cultural differences, and others—that need to be removed and bridges that need to be built.
GSDC is one of the local organizations seeking to do that. In 2015, GSDC and St. Cloud-based employment and training agency Career Solutions helped launch the Immigrant Employment Connection Group, which is working to get newcomers “acclimated and integrated into the workforce,” Gartland says. Immigrant Employment Connection Group has held job fairs for immigrants and training sessions for employers to improve their working relationships with immigrant employees.
Regional leaders are hoping to turn another challenge into an opportunity: Many in Greater St. Cloud describe its proximity and easy transportation access to the Twin Cities metro as one of its strengths, but for the St. Cloud Regional Airport, it might be one of its weaknesses.
In 2014, the region hailed the arrival of United Airlines’ nonstop service to Chicago. But 10 months after introducing the flights, United terminated the service, saying that it wasn’t achieving sustainable numbers. Regional leaders, including GSDC, have undertaken an aviation market study, which Gartland expects to be completed by the end of 2018. The study examines “what will be viable for the St. Cloud Regional Airport, given its proximity to MSP,” she says.
While many local businesses are growing and adding employees, in 2017, Sweden-based Electrolux announced that it would close its St. Cloud refrigerator factory in 2019, putting about 900 people out of work.
“It’s not the kind of news you ever want to hear,” Gartland admits. “But [at least] it comes at a time when it’s actually going to be helpful to our existing manufacturing businesses.” Many regional employers with skilled manufacturing jobs “immediately came forward and said, ‘We’d love to work with the folks at Electrolux and their employees to help get them transitioned to other opportunities in the region.’ ”
Small-Business Owners: Next Generation
Brandon Johnson and Josh Hoffman didn’t plan to start a retail store. While Hoffman held occasional sales of vintage household dÃ©cor items from his garage, it wasn’t until after buying a house in the town of Clearwater with Brandon Johnson, who directs the MBA program at St. Cloud State University’s Herberger Business School, that sales grew bigger and bigger. During the 2016 holiday season, more than 200 people showed up at their sale. “That was the final motivation to make this full time,” Johnson says.
They opened Copper Pony, a store on St. Germain Street that now sells new home dÃ©cor and gift items. Many of the products they sell are made regionally. “We believe in supporting our local artists and makers,” Johnson says.
Guided by Paul Wellstone’s philosophy “We all do better when we all do better,” Copper Pony looks for opportunities to promote its downtown St. Cloud neighbors. “We’re happy to let our customers know if another business is doing something special,” he says. “We then encourage folks who come to us to go across the street and have lunch at one of the eateries or grab a cocktail at one of the bars or visit one of the other downtown shops.”
St. Cloud: Silicon Valley of the North?
You don’t need to be in Silicon Valley—or even the Twin Cities—to start a tech company. That’s the gospel that St. Cloud-based venture fund Great North Labs wants to spread.
Its founders know what they’re talking about. Great North Labs was launched in late 2017 by brothers Rob and Ryan Weber, who started their first tech-driven firm, NativeX, while still undergraduates at St. Cloud State University. Later headquartered in nearby Sartell, NativeX became a global powerhouse for placing ads in mobile games and apps. In 2016, the Webers sold NativeX to Chinese mobile advertising network Mobvista for $25 million.
They could have started another profit-driven company. Instead, they chose to use their money and expertise to help other entrepreneurs start theirs.
Great North Labs’ focuses on overlooked ventures in the Upper Midwest. So far, the firm has made seven investments that it has made public. Five are in the Twin Cities and the others are headquartered in Chicago and Des Moines. None are based in the St. Cloud region—yet.
Great North Labs’ goal for its first fund is to invest in around 20 companies. “What we’re seeing is that there are so many industry sectors in the Midwest that haven’t fully taken advantage of mobile and cloud,” Rob Weber says. Advertising and marketing companies such as NativeX “were early adopters.”
The Great North Labs’ portfolio includes Bloomington-based courier firm Dispatch, which provides a mobile application that allows customers to track their order and the estimated time of delivery. “The courier market did not embrace these technologies,” Weber says. “That created fertile ground for Dispatch.”
Expect to see more startups that are offering cloud- and mobile-based services to businesses in need of digital transformation, Weber says. He believes that the St. Cloud region could be the birthplace of innovative startups like Dispatch. One reason: higher-education institutions that can spawn new entrepreneurs, plus tech startups like NativeX, which show that it can be done.
While running NativeX, the brothers invested in three highly successful St. Cloud-based tech companies, including FieldNation and eBureau. Now based in Minneapolis, Field Nation was founded in 2008 by St. Cloud State graduate Mynul Khan, who is now the company’s CEO. Field Nation connects specialized IT technicians with companies seeking employees for short-term assignments and projects. Some years before starting Field Nation, Khan had interned at eBureau, a data analytics software company providing credit risk assessment and fraud prevention services. Before the St. Cloud firm was acquired in 2017 by Chicago-based credit reporting agency TransUnion, eBureau had raised $43 million in venture capital investment.
Weber cites other St. Cloud-based tech companies that are thriving. One is GeoComm Inc., which develops GIS technology used by public security and safety personnel, and another is Microbiologics Inc., which provides microorganisms used in quality-control product testing for pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, and other industries. Food Dudes is another St. Cloud success story—a food-delivery service for restaurants that don’t have in-house drivers. Orders (and tips) are managed via Food Dudes’ online software. The company is continuing to scale, mostly in smaller urban areas such as Duluth.
The Great North Labs executive team, which includes Silicon Valley-based Pradip Madan, believes the St. Cloud region has the potential to further scale its entrepreneurial ecosystem. In September, Great North Labs hosted its first annual meeting at St. Cloud State, where it has held a number of educational programs. Great North Labs is also building referral networks in other regional cities, including Duluth, Mankato, and Rochester.
“Ideas in smaller cities don’t need to make as big an impact as they might need to in the Twin Cities,” Weber says. What those ideas need, he says, are entrepreneurs who can “collaborate across disciplines”—including marketing, design, and finance—to become full-fledged businesses. Great North Labs is ready to do its part.
New Leadership in Higher Ed
Greater St. Cloud has long been a regional education center. In recent years, the area’s higher education institutions have experienced notable new leadership, including two women of color. They represent changes not only in the schools themselves, but also in the region.
“The future of liberal arts colleges is connected inextricably to our ability to engage, support, and graduate the increasingly diverse student bodies enriching our campus conversations,” says Mary Dana Hinton, president of the College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph, the all-women’s sister college of St. John’s University in nearby Collegeville. St. Ben’s is one of three Catholic institutions that U.S. News and World Report ranks among the country’s top 100 liberal arts colleges.
“We must be willing to be transformed at our very core by the students we serve,” says Hinton, who made history when she was named president of the school in 2014 as the first black woman to hold the job. “More simply, we must use the values of the liberal arts and the lessons and tools that they provide to achieve inclusive excellence.”
Annesa Cheek, who became president of St. Cloud Community & Technical College in March 2018, is also focused on inclusion—in the workforce as well as the classroom. Of SCTC’s approximately 1,200 graduating students each year, 75 percent stay within a 30-mile radius of St. Cloud, Cheek says. “We are integrally connected to every aspect and facet of this community.”
Now, Cheek says, “people are asking us to do more.”
Cheek believes the influx of immigrants and refugees to the St. Cloud area is a great opportunity. While other regions across the state and country are having difficulty finding workers to meet industry demand, “we have the talent here,” she says. “We just need to work with those communities to make sure that they have the education, skills, and the experience that they need.” Cheek is optimistic that by “working together with stakeholders inside the college and out in the community, we’ll be able to move the region forward.”
Cheek has partnered with newcomer Robbyn Wacker, who was appointed president of St. Cloud State University in July 2018. “We are focused on the ways we can bring the missions of both of our institutions to meet the workforce needs in the region,” Wacker says.
Workforce preparation and employer collaboration are familiar territory for both schools.
St. Cloud State recently created the Center for Health Outcomes and Policy Research, which brings together university faculty and staff from local provider CentraCare Health to explore ways to improve treatment efficacy and health care delivery. “These are important issues for central and rural Minnesota,” Wacker says. “We felt we were best positioned to tackle that and bring our resources together.”
Similarly, St. Cloud State’s science and engineering program helps local businesses bring technology projects to campus that students can participate in. One such partner is GeoComm Inc., a St. Cloud-based firm specializing in geographic information system (GIS) technology used by public security and safety personnel. University students worked with GeoComm to create a GIS system that could be used in large indoor spaces by emergency first responders and others. The technology was piloted at the 2018 Super Bowl in Minneapolis.
That’s just one example of how Wacker aims to “continue to creatively respond to market demand.” Like many universities, St. Cloud State will continue to look at alternative formats for delivering education—a hybrid of in-person class time and online, for instance—to meet student needs. The university also needs to prepare students to be resilient and adaptable to new career possibilities and to be comfortable engaging with different cultures locally and worldwide; St. Cloud State has students from more than 90 different countries.
Set in Stone
St. Cloud’s nickname, “the Granite City,” speaks to the region’s history as a quarrying area. It’s a smaller industry today, but granite quarrying is still thriving in the region, particularly in Cold Spring, home to North America’s largest privately held quarrier and fabricator of natural stone, aptly called Coldspring.
With 30 quarries around the country, including two in the St. Cloud region, Coldspring employs more than 700 nationwide and serves the architectural, memorial, residential, and industrial markets. Coldspring supplied materials for the West Point cadet barracks and the new World Trade Center in New York. Recent projects in Minneapolis include the Target Field LRT station and the Interstate 35W Bridge Memorial.
Coldspring isn’t the only stone-related business in the region. There’s also St. Cloud-based Park Industries, which has been manufacturing stone-cutting and fabrication equipment for 65 years. Much of the limestone on U.S. Bank Stadium was fabricated using Park equipment, says company co-president Joan Schatz. Park Industries employs 325 nationwide and sells its equipment throughout North America.
Sales of cutting equipment have grown steadily, largely due to the burgeoning demand of engineered or “man-made” stone such as Cambria, Schatz says. In 2017, Park Industries added 35,000 square feet of production space.
Demand for its products means that Park Industries needs employees with manufacturing skills. But there’s a hitch: Young people don’t seem to be looking for careers in manufacturing. “These are financially rewarding professions that haven’t gotten the credit they’re due,” Schatz says. As vice chair of the Greater St. Cloud Development Corp. Talent Corps, which focuses on workforce development, Schatz and other regional executives have been working to build awareness among educators and students about the jobs available in the manufacturing sector. One of their strategies: sponsoring robotics competitions in area schools.
The days of picks and shovels are long past. Even longstanding quarries like Coldspring are now high-tech.
Small-Business Owners: Next Generation
Guytano Magno spent the first 10 years of his post-collegiate career as a wedding photographer. In 2015, weary of weekends away from his family, he started St. Cloud-based Switchboard Advertising. Magno still shoots photos and videos, but he’s been joined by print and web designers. The company’s client base, mostly local, includes government agencies, nonprofits, and educational institutions.
That’s not to say that his life has slowed down. About the same time he founded Switchboard, Magno started Gather Table Co., which produces high-end dining room tables sold primarily through interior designers. They’re particularly popular in Chicago and the coasts, says Magno, who emphasizes the craftsmanship.
Meanwhile, Magno also founded Cooper Collective, a co-working space now home to about 15 freelancers and entrepreneurial companies. Some of them provide services to Switchboard.
“If I was going to re-create our spaces and our businesses in Minneapolis, it would cost me a fortune,” Magno says. “Central Minnesota is a special place, and I absolutely love being a part of this community.”
Regional Nonprofits: Building Access to Prosperity
Aspiring entrepreneurs in Little Falls’ East African community are turning their dreams of opening restaurants, stores, and even a trucking company into business plans, thanks to one-on-one support they’re receiving from the Enterprise Academy, a new program from the Initiative Foundation. It’s one of several examples of how the St. Cloud region’s nonprofits and business sector are working together.
Founded in 1986, the Initiative Foundation focuses on community economic issues, including workforce development, entrepreneurship, and childcare. It covers mostly rural territory, but also hits St. Cloud's urban areas. In 2017, it provided more than $10 million in funding. That same year, the foundation opened a satellite office in downtown St. Cloud to be closer to several partners.
The Initiative Foundation created the Enterprise Academy in partnership with the St. Joseph-based Central Minnesota Community Empowerment Organization, a nonprofit that provides services designed to help immigrants and refugees gain skills and education. The academy’s goal is to remove barriers that keep aspiring business owners from launching businesses. English is a second language for many of the academy constituents, which can make it hard to find financing. The Enterprise Academy offers classes in business plan development and other skills to start and run a company—both in English and the participants’ native tongue. It also provides access to lending that conforms to Islamic strictures against interest.
The Initiative Foundation works closely with private-sector businesses, says Matt Varilek, president. But while the area is home to a “great and prosperous group of private employers, a byproduct of having strong employers is that many of them face workforce challenges,” he says.
One way the Initiative Foundation is addressing those challenges is through its Talent Advantage Series, a series of events, launched in partnership with local businesses and organizations such as the Greater St. Cloud Development Corp., that showcase creative solutions other regions have developed.
In many cases, the Initiative Foundation offers financial support for workforce development programs.
One example is CareerONE Coleman, an on-the-job training pilot program created in partnership with Kansas-based camping equipment maker Coleman Co. Inc.; the company’s Sauk Rapids plant manufactures the Stearns brand of flotation devices for the consumer boating market. Working with local school districts and a regional workforce development organization called Career Solutions, the Initiative Foundation funded a program that allowed East African students to work part time while they studied for their GEDs. (The St. Paul-based Otto Bremer Trust also provided financial support for the pilot.) Several of those student-employees were hired full time; others continued with their education.
It means a lot of long days, but these residents are highly driven. Abdirizak Jama, program specialist for the Enterprise Academy, tells the story of a St. Cloud-area entrepreneur who, in addition to raising her children, works eight hours a day at the Gold’n Plump poultry plant in Cold Spring and runs her own food store. What keeps these St. Cloud-area residents going?
Says Jama, “It really comes down to the American dream.”
Small-Business Owners: Next Generation
Donella Westphal was a regular at the city’s beloved Jules’ Bistro near the Paramount Theatre on St. Cloud’s historic St. Germain Street. In early 2017, bistro founder Julie Mische told Westphal that she was looking to sell. Westphal ran her own marketing agency; her restaurant experience was limited to being a patron. But she went home and told her husband, “I’m going to buy it.” A big step? Yes, but, she says, “I felt it was the thing I was supposed to do next.”
Westphal didn’t want to make big changes, and Jules’ customers certainly didn’t want them. The menu has remained largely the same. But the “enhancements” she’s put in place might well have made the bistro even more popular. They include regional sourcing of high-quality ingredients, including dairy from Melrose-based Stony Creek Dairy. Westphal also took all of the restaurant’s baked goods in-house. “We’re very well-known for our cakes—that’s sort of our sweet spot,” she says.
In May, with the bistro busier than ever, Westphal acquired the open space next door, more than doubling the size.
Westphal also has followed in Mische’s footsteps as one of the chief volunteers supporting the St. Cloud Art Crawl, which takes place four times a year at 35 to 40 venues. Westphal manages the event’s marketing efforts, including its website. In addition, she and her restaurant staff give back in numerous ways, including donating meals to Pathways 4 Youth, a St. Cloud program for homeless young people. Says Westphal, “I believe in community and in helping other small businesses.”
Growth on Tap
There hadn’t been a brewery in St. Cloud since 1939. So when Nick Barth and Matt Studer opened Beaver Island Brewing Co. four years ago, they were breaking new ground—and taking a big risk.
The risk paid off: It turned out that Beaver Island was tapping into a thirsty market. After opening their taproom in February 2015, Barth and Studer quickly established a second market in Duluth. Within a year, Beaver Island secured a statewide distributor, Bernick’s, based in nearby Waite Park. In 2017, Beaver Island set up its own canning operation. The Brewers Association, a Colorado-based trade group, ranked Beaver Island as one of the 50 fastest-growing breweries in the U.S.
But for Barth and Studer, roots are the key ingredient.
“First and foremost, we’re town kids—we’re local,” Barth says. They named their brewery after what’s actually a group of islands in the Mississippi near the city’s downtown. They also hired another regional native, Chris Laumb, who brought with him more than 20 years of professional brewing experience. Laumb crafted a sturdy foursome of flagship brews—two IPAs, a German-style ale, and a luscious sweet stout.
“St. Cloud has been extremely receptive,” Barth says. And Beaver Island seeks to return the love, donating over $30,000 in the last year alone to local charities. In addition, the brewing company sponsors diaper drives for needy families and fundraisers for school supplies.
These days, Beaver Island has company. In nearby St. Joseph, there’s Bad Habit Brewing and a new craft cider maker, Milk & Honey. Pantown Brewing is planning to open soon in the St. Cloud neighborhood of the same name. And there’s been enough brewing in Central Minnesota (and elsewhere in the state) to inspire the launch of Foley-based Mighty Axe Hops, which grows several types of the magical plant.
Of course, the newer brewers have a regional pioneer to look up to: Cold Spring Brewing Co., in the city of the same name. Founded in 1874, it now claims to be “the nation’s largest beverage producer—producing, packaging, and distributing top names in soft drinks, beer, malt beverages, energy drinks, and more.” But Minnesota beer fans know it best for its Third Street Brewhouse line of craft beers, which includes an award-winning Oktoberfest.