Celebrating rural economy progress at 5th Monday luncheon

Fourteen new rural businesses since January 2021. This milestone is one of many the START HERE Business Acceleration Network celebrated this week in Warsaw, Missouri. It was the START HERE network’s first in-person “5th Monday” networking luncheon since the global pandemic put a pause on the semi-quarterly community economic development events.

5th Monday panel of START HERE business assistance partners. [L-R] Sheridan Garman-Neeman, Kaysinger Basin Regional Planning Commission; Jo Ann Lane, Benton County Economic Development; Lisa Jones, New Growth CDC; Kelly Asbury, Missouri Small Business Development Center at State Fair Community College.

A panel of START HERE partners described the teamwork that has this year helped many rural entrepreneurs — from Main Street shops to local farms and restaurants — bring their business ideas to life.

In addition to business development co-counseling, START HERE network partners have also teamed up to launch a micro-enterprise loan fund. With just $71,000 in its initial loan pool, the START HERE Revolving Loan Fund, operated by community development corporation New Growth, has financed 19 businesses in less than a year, of which 14 are startups. An associated credit-building program helped 26 existing and aspiring business owners move their scores a total of 875 points to the good.

The 15-county, SBA-designated New Growth Women’s Business Center, also launched this past year as a START HERE resource partner. It is one of only five rural-focused WBCs in the nation. It adds on-the-ground business coaches to a rural region where such resources are scattered, stranded, and starved. Through START HERE network connections, the New Growth WBC can call on and connect entrepreneurs with a wide range of resources they need.

Bankable Businesses

The network’s “Start Here. Grow Here. Stay Here.” initiative is stimulating rural economic development by building a pipeline of bankable small businesses.

Joni Henry, loan officer at Oak Star Bank in Hermitage, commented from the 5th Monday luncheon audience on this work.

The Hickory County banker said many rural businesses are too new, too small, or too risky credit-wise for most banks to work with.

“We are required to have two years of business financials to even consider them,” she said. “These programs help get businesses going and ready for banks.”

Virtuous Cycle

Economic developers from the region discuss START HERE resources. [L-R] Mark Dawson, Greater Clinton Area Chamber of Commerce and Gail Noggle, Economic Development Alliance-Bolivar and Polk County.

Mark Dawson, Economic Development Director at the Greater Clinton Area Chamber of Commerce, added that putting energy behind entrepreneurs and rural small businesses is a smart rural development investment.

“Quality of life rises and more people want to invest in the area, including larger employers,” he said. “Economic development is a cycle, and this work feeds into it.”

Dawson and other luncheon participants were interested in how START HERE partners work together and with other rural development organizations.

START HERE partners share the work and share the credit, said Kelly Asbury, Director of the Missouri Small Business Development Center at State Fair Community College.

It doesn’t matter if entrepreneurs come through the New Growth Women’s Business Center door or through MOSBDC’s. “You can’t go wrong,” she said. “We work together to find the right resources and leave no entrepreneur behind.”

Regional Teamwork

Sheridan Garman-Neeman, Executive Director of the seven-county Kaysinger Basin Regional Planning Commission, kicked off the panel presentation with a short history on how START HERE partners began working together.

It started with the region’s 2017-2022 regional economic development planning process and leadership from partner West Central Missouri Community Action Agency in building robust small business assistance into it. The plan included objectives of forming a regional business accelerator network and establishing a regional revolving loan fund.

“We’ve accomplished those goals, and many more,” Garman-Neeman said.

START HERE collaboration is also part of related community economic development initiatives that are strengthening rural business development. They include:

WCMCAA Food Systems Director Katie Nixon describes new small business assistance resources for local farm and food businesses.

  • Funding for county economic development programs, which Kaysinger operates in financial partnership with Vernon, Benton, and St. Clair counties.
  • A suite of local food and farm business development programs, including West Central Missouri Community Action Agency staff dedicated to connecting and supporting businesses from farm to fork and a new program to build farm-to-school programs in the region. Annual Farm to Fork summits are part of the regional business network building.
  • A micro-transit program operated by West Central addressing unique rural transportation needs, including rides to work and employment training.
From “What if” to “What is”

WCMCAA President and CEO Chris Thompson shares the rural revival vision behind START HERE collaboration.

Chris Thompson, President and CEO of West Central Missouri Community Action Agency, closed the luncheon with a call for rural solutions for rural people and places.

Too many development efforts come from the outside, and with approaches that do not fit rural areas, he said.

START HERE teamwork is rural people pulling together for rural places. It is innovative and effective. It is turning the “What if” to the “What is,” he said.

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