Partners in Prosperity

the Eau Claire Area Economic Development Corp. exists to help turn your big idea into a big success

Tom Giffey, photos by Andrea Paulseth

Luke Hanson, Eau Claire Area Economic Development Corp.
Luke Hanson, Eau Claire Area Economic Development Corp.

In the alphabet soup buffet of business assistance agencies, the Eau Claire Area Economic Development Corp. has one of the most intimidatingly long names. But the Eau Claire-based agency isn’t intimidating at all. As its executive director, Luke Hanson, says, “The EDC is a ready conduit to assist in making your start-up, expansion, or move into the area the most affordable it can be and as seamless as possible.” Hanson became executive director of the EDC in December after a two-and-a-half-year stint as project manager with the agency. We talked to him about the specifics of what the EDC does and how it can help transform entrepreneurs’ ideas into job-producing, money-making, community-enhancing ventures.

Volume One: On a fundamental level, what is the purpose of the EDC?

Hanson: The Eau Claire Area EDC is here to increase the overall economic prosperity in the Eau Claire area. What we do is help facilitate growth in our community whether it is assisting a local company with an expansion, recruiting new businesses into the area, assisting with the critical talent attraction to the area, as well as starting new businesses. Our mission is to advance economic prosperity through business and job growth.

What are the biggest challenges faced by start-up businesses in the Chippewa Valley, and how do they compare with the challenges faced by businesses elsewhere?

The biggest challenge with a start-up is the financial aspect. Starting a company isn’t cheap; it takes cash and a significant amount of time to get your feet under you. Fortunately, there are agencies like the Eau Claire Area EDC that can assist with financing your start-up as well as provide advice on how to utilize the resources available to you. Another large challenge for a start-up business is understanding the legal side of your business. The legal side is making sure you are able to protect yourself, your company, your product, your intellectual property and your employees. Finally, what often is the scariest step: Hiring your first employee. You are doubling your workforce and growing your company, making sure you have insurance to cover employees, deciding what kinds of benefits to provide and, of course, the main question on your mind will be: “What happens if I can’t cover the wages or pay my payables?” These are all things the EDC works with and will help guide businesses through on a regular basis.

What we do is help facilitate growth in our community ... Our mission is to advance economic prosperity through business and job growth.
– Luke Hanson, executive director, EC Area Economic Development Corp.

On the flip side, what are the advantages of starting a business in the Eau Claire area?

There are many advantages to starting your own business in Eau Claire, and that is why we are fortunate to have several large companies and many businesses headquartered here in the Chippewa Valley. When starting your own business there are a few obvious advantages in my book: You establish your work schedule and report to yourself. Of course, you will have large deadlines, but if you have good processes in place, you will be able to retain a good work/life balance. Another strong reason to start a business in Eau Claire is the network of assistance that is provided in the area. In Eau Claire there is a large network of individuals and companies looking to assist and share their knowledge for success with new business owners. These resource assets will assist with business plans, financial projections, human resources, insurance, expansions, taxes, and a wide array of other things. Finally, one of the best things about starting a business in Eau Claire is that it is not only a great place for business, but it also offers a vibrant and growing community that nurtures families, new businesses, new jobs, and customers.

Suppose I have a great idea for a new business, product, or service, but I don’t know where to begin. What are the specific things that the EDC can do for me?

First of all, I would highly suggest applying to the Idea Challenge (www.theideachallenge.com). We have had over 325 applications to the program since 2012. Many participating businesses go on to become successful members of our business community. If you are not looking to be a part of the Idea Challenge and would like to continue on your own, I will still suggest you contact the Eau Claire Area EDC, because we will be able to assist you. And if we can’t assist, we will know someone who can. We are here to help you become successful.

What are some of the success stories that have grown out of the Idea Challenge?

There are several to talk about, but I will only touch on a couple, otherwise this will get lengthy. Let’s start out with our winner from 2014, Jeff Dykes from Northern Star Fire. Jeff came to the Idea Challenge with nothing but an idea but no idea how to make it work, no patent, and no experience in owning a business. Since he won the Idea Challenge, he has a provisional patent and a working prototype and has had several offers from other companies to purchase his business. Another company is Chip Valley Salsa. They were not winners of the Idea Challenge, but they have been very successful growing their business. Chip Valley has over a dozen product lines and recently underwent an expansion in order to hire more employees. They have products on the shelves throughout Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Illinois. There are several new companies assisted by the EDC that are selling nationally as well as other companies that have signed licensing agreements for their products. This program has done a great job in supporting and advancing entrepreneurship in our community.

What do you do to help startups develop their business plans?

The EDC helps start-ups with their business plans by diving into the business model with the company. The start-up needs to have an understanding of where it would like to head and what direction the market is headed. They may be completely different avenues and the start-up will need assistance to determine the proper direction. The EDC also works hand-in-hand with the Small Business Development Center on a company’s business plans and its financial statements to advance each opportunity.

Does the EDC provide financial assistance? How?

Financial assistance is available through the EDC with the Idea Challenge and Near Equity Fund. We also work with many other organizations that provide loans, grants, and tax-based incentives that are available to all of our clients. The situation and eligibility of the company applying for the financial assistance determines if they qualify. The EDC has the understanding and skillsets to assemble financial packages that will best suit the company. Just let us know what you are looking for and your needs, we will research your eligibility.

What can you do for firms that are already established here but want to expand?

For firms or companies that are currently established in Eau Claire, the EDC can provide multiple types of assistance. The EDC can structure financial packages that best suit the company, assist with expansion via tax credits, loans, TIF agreements, and other resources depending on the situation. Expansions usually include adding employees and increasing the equity stake in the company, both of which make a company eligible for additional financing models.

How much of the work the EDC does involves attracting outside businesses to the region?

Business recruitment is one of the EDC’s core competencies and something we are measured on. We schedule regular call trips after a targeted mailing, and calls are made to schedule appointments in the Chicago and Twin Cities markets. We are always looking for opportunities to promote the Eau Claire area and our focus is on business sectors that would fit well and thrive in our area.

As executive director, what do you consider your role to be in terms of expanding the regional economy?

I’ve been given the opportunity as executive director to continue working with my peers in the Chippewa Valley (Chippewa and Dunn County EDCs) and being part of the large private and public partnership that continues to grow here and makes working in economic development such a positive experience.

Got An Idea?  

Have you got a great business idea burning a hole in your brain? Since 2007, the Idea Challenge, an annual contest sponsored by the Eau Claire Area Economic Development Corp., has been boosting local entrepreneurs. If you’ve got an idea, you can submit an application to the program anytime at www.theideachallenge.com. The first round of awards are announced in November, when up to five ideas win cash and as many as three ideas win $1,000 for business services. Then the top five winners have a chance to pitch their ideas to business professionals and investors to compete for the $5,000 grand prize, which is announced in December. Professionals evaluate each idea submitted and offer free guidance, so you’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain for putting your idea out there!

The Idea ChallengeEau Claire Area Economic Development Corp. • 101 N. Farwell St., Suite 101 • P.O. Box 1108 • Eau Claire, WI 54702 • (715) 834-0070 •  www.theideachallenge.com