St. Cloud looks to lure high-tech businesses with fast Internetby Ambar Espinoza, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Cloud is one of the nation's most wired cities, comparable to major metropolitan areas, including Minneapolis, and there's a new campaign to recruit high-technology companies to the downtown area.
St. Cloud, Minn. — If a fast internet connection sounds like a train barreling down the tracks, then an even faster internet connection might sound akin to the Space Shuttle rocketing into space.
It's that extremely rapid internet connection on which St. Cloud hopes to stake its development. In the 1990s, two competing fiber optic companies began to install fiber optic cables all around St. Cloud and the competition drove down the price of Internet connections. Pegg Gustafson, executive director of the St. Cloud Downtown Council, said that's a selling point for potential businesses and she wants them to know about it.
"We did a whole market research study to find out what people are looking for and now we'll be sending this package to about 310 companies within a five-state area," Gustafson said.
Gustafson's marketing package also has information about St. Cloud's other perks, including a low cost of living and affordable business rent. That's why Tom Grones started his business in St. Cloud nearly 15 years ago. Grones is president and CEO of GeoComm, a company that develops 911 systems for county governments. He said there is still a lot of office space in downtown for new companies.
"These assets we have here in downtown St. Cloud, I think we need to exploit what we see as a distinct opportunity to create a high-tech incubator for downtown, central Minnesota, and the community at large," Grones said.
Grones said he supports new high-tech companies in downtown because he wants to see the business district revitalized.
Scott Warzecha shares the same goals. He's the founder and CEO of NetGain. NetGain remotely runs the Internet servers of businesses and stores sensitive company information from its database center. Most of Warzecha's business comes from the health care industry.
"One of our big reasons for our rapid growth is because of the adoption of electronic medical records," Warzecha said.
Warzecha said if anything ever interferes with the internet connection, it'll get resolved fast because this communication hub is located near banking and government offices, which get serviced first. This is especially important in the medical industry because doctors need to access patient information at all times.
That reliable connection is also one of many factors ING Direct USA has an operation in downtown St. Cloud. ING Direct runs its IT operations and its customer service from St. Cloud.
"At ING Direct we have, with 7.5 million customers, 85 percent of our transactions are done online, so we don't have tellers," said Brian Myres, head of sales for ING Direct. "So the Internet, the Web, is basically acting as the teller, so it's very important that it works 24/7."
Business in St. Cloud is going well for ING Direct. Myres said the St. Cloud facility has the capacity to employ nearly 1,000 people. For now, it has 527 employees.
King Banaian is chairman of the economics department at St. Cloud State University. He said doing business in downtown St. Cloud could help companies make themselves competitive and profitable while saving money, especially during a recession. Banaian said the fact that there are several successful high-tech companies in downtown St. Cloud is telling.
"It's significant as a proof that business can work here and that there is enough bandwidth here to support what those businesses do," Banaian said. "And if it can support them, there's probably enough bandwidth left over for other businesses to take advantage of the location."
Banaian said if more high-tech businesses move into the area, then that will keep the talent pool from the three local universities in central Minnesota instead of outsourcing them to other cities.
There's another central Minnesota city looking to follow in the steps of St. Cloud. Brainerd has a fast internet connection as well, and it hopes to bring in more high-tech businesses.
- All Things Considered, 06/11/2009, 5:25 p.m.