Marketplace still hotbed of thinking

BISMARCK, N.D. -- It was in the 20-below-zero-range outside, but at the 20th Marketplace for Entrepreneurs inside the Bismarck (N.D.) Civic Center, there still was a hotbed for entrepreneurial activity and thinking.

BISMARCK, N.D. -- It was in the 20-below-zero-range outside, but at the 20th Marketplace for Entrepreneurs inside the Bismarck (N.D.) Civic Center, there still was a hotbed for entrepreneurial activity and thinking.

Several hundred attended the Jan. 13 to 14 event, hosted again by Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., and led by the North Dakota Agriculture Department, once again brought together hundreds of the state's most active fledgling business players for an annual celebration and brainstorming session.

Agriculture no longer is the only player in the event, but the event that was created in the late 1980s to help agriculture shake off the farm debt crisis blues of the day still is about celebrating agriculture's possibilities. This year's event was headlined by such national players as Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody's, who says the national economy is going to get worse before it improves. Zandi advises business, government and other institutions.

Conrad, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, took the Marketplace platform to announce he'll be proposing a bill called the Rural Revitalization Act of 2009. It's a way to ensure that rural America gets a piece of the national economic stimulus package, he says.

Conrad listed infrastructure, nutrition, housing and rural health initiatives that would specify "in excess of $10 billion" for such purposes in the rural areas, in addition to the $100 billion or so proposed nationwide. Price scoring for the rural add-on is pending at the Congressional Budget Office.


Among the infrastructure items Conrad listed:

n Electric transmission lines: USDA Rural Development loans and Department of Energy grants to electric cooperatives would upgrade and expand transmission. (Separately, he's been a player in bills that give states between North Dakota and Chicago a chance to select their own transmission lines to carry wind and other electric power, but would federal action if they don't accomplish the purpose.)

- Ethanol pipelines: Loan guarantees would pay to construct new renewable fuel pipelines or modify existing pipelines.

- Transportation: Highway and bridge projects should be funded immediately as economic stimulus and tens of millions could be spent in North Dakota in 2009, he says.

- Water projects: The bill would add $200 million to the Bureau of Reclamation's rural water program. North Dakota has more than $200 million in rural projects to be funded immediately.

Conrad says much of these upgrades are needed anyway to ensure a thriving rural economy and says these investments provide a more substantive and long-term payback than some other projects, hypothetically mentioning highway beautification.

"We've got to get the biggest bang for the buck that we can," he says.



Conrad and North Dakota Ag Commissioner Roger Johnson also announced three entrepreneurship winners: SB&B Foods of Casselton, N.D., an international marketer of food-grade soybeans; Carrington, N.D., as Entrepreneurial Community of the Year; and Carrie Grosz of Bismarck as "Social Entrepreneur of the Year" for youth work.

Among other things, Carrington is home to a new dairy which is scheduled to come online in March.

Bob Sinner, president of SB&B Foods, says privately held family-based company has done "nothing magical" in increasing its food business, except for being methodical and careful about producing a "safe, quality product" to processors worldwide. Sale values more than doubled in 2008, but Sinner notes that part of that was simply a change in the value of commodities. The company was on a steep growth pattern even before that.


There were two missing elements to the event. One, the Dakota Store, a standard element at previous Marketplace events, was nowhere to be found. One staff member says there was insufficient interest among exhibitors.

Another missing element was some new, bold farmer-owned ag processing venture, although some 65 people showed up to listen to Jan. 13 discussions of "local food" possibilities.

Don Senechal, founding principal in the Windmill Group of Drake, N.D., who helped launch several "new-generation" agricultural cooperatives in the 1990s, led a discussion of a recent study he's worked on with North Dakota State University economists interviewed company leaders from that era, to determine why co-ops either succeeded or failed.

Among other things, Senechal says he is surprised at how thoroughly many of the co-op leaders of the 1990s have turned their backs on the co-op form of governance, favoring limited liability companies that open up capitalization opportunities and diversify boards.


He says one of the most common reasons co-ops sunk or nearly did was conflicts over location, especially for economic development. He related one story where a co-op in which a board chairman who lost the fight to site a project in his hometown broke the gavel when pounding it on the table, walked out and never returned.

Senechal says another bugaboo for start-up ag processing companies was the temptation to use rely too much on new, untested technology in processing.

Several speakers at Marketplace focused on the technological and economics of making fuel from biomass, a field that involves several unanswered questions and untested technologies.

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