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Local Entrepreneurs Grab Reins on 'Buying Local'

December 04, 2009 By Lee Egerstrom, Economic Development Fellow
Positive steps are being taken by local entrepreneurs to promote their shared strengths and resources and attract area consumers to buy locally made and sold products this holiday season.

In core areas of the Twin Cities, the Metro Independent Business Alliance, or Metro IBA, has started its website for members to promote products available at their stores. This guide was launched in cooperation with Minnesota 2020's release of its report "Made in MN 2009: Homegrown Holidays" and the updated Made in Minnesota Gift Guide.

Now comes word from Meg Brownson in Stillwater that downtown merchants in the historic river town have formed Main Street Stillwater IBA. Most merchants along Stillwater's beautiful old main street are independent business people, she noted, and their downtown stores and restaurants can be a destination site for shoppers and fun seekers year around.

And in another venture aimed at increasing sales of local products, the Northeast Entrepreneur Fund has launched a Northland Flavor project to help artists build local markets and reach consumers with their artwork.

The project and its programs are open to artists in the 11 counties served by the Northeast Entrepreneur Fund - Aitkin, Carlton, Cass, Cook, Crow Wing, Itasca, Koochiching, Lake, Pine and St. Louis counties in Minnesota and the adjacent Douglas County around Superior, Wis.

Three training sessions for northeast artists began Nov. 24 and on Dec.1 - "How to Create and Price a Desirable Product Line" and "How to Develop a Marketing Plan to Sell My Products." A third program, "How to Prepare for a Successful, Profitable Northland Flavor Marketplace," is scheduled in Duluth for Jan. 5.

Meanwhile, the fund is hosting a two-day Northland Flavor Marketplace at the Holiday Inn Conference Center in Duluth on March 7 and 8. Artists who may want to participate and exhibit at the marketplace should contact Suzanne Semborski, the NEF special projects manager, at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) or call 218-623-5729.

Little Steps, Big Momentum
Such actions are little steps by themselves, but they can provide big momentum for local and regional economies. For instance, Northeast Entrepreneur Fund data show entrepreneurial activity is alive despite an overall weak economy in the Lake Superior-Iron Range region.

From its offices in Virginia, Grand Rapids, Duluth and Superior, the fund had a goal of providing $950,000 in loans to entrepreneurs in 2009, said Mary Mathews, the fund's president. But the fund had closed on $1.3 million by the end of October, she said, and she estimated that loans would reach $1.7 million by the end of the year.

NEF operates a flexible loan program of from $1,000 on up to $35,000 to help entrepreneurs start businesses. Thus fills a void as entrepreneurs often have trouble accessing capital to start their ventures.

The fund also has loan programs of up to $100,000 to aid existing businesses, either as a sole lender or in partnership with banks and economic development organizations.

Reshaping Local Economies
The "grab a hold and go" attitude being shown by entrepreneurs here is being duplicated elsewhere, and that also suggests there is still more we can do at the ground levels of our economies within Minnesota.

More regions and communities can follow the Metro IBA and now Stillwater lead and form independent business alliances for communities and local entrepreneurs. Such groups may remain independent of each other or link with one another in the future; the point is they serve local entrepreneurs and don't get rolled over by non-germane big business issues that may actually do small merchants and manufacturers more harm than good.

Economic development funds can develop programs like the Northeast fund to encourage entrepreneurs start venture - both with training and with hard to access capital.

And finally, Minnesota and its institutions should pay more attention to promoting employee ownership programs to start new and save existing businesses. Data from the Ohio Employee Ownership Center at Kent State University shows that it works - for people and for Ohio communities.

John Logue, the director, reports in a letter to friends of the center that in the 22 years of it's existence, the center's Common Wealth Revolving Loan Fund never made a bad loan. "Of course we didn't invest in Lehman Brothers or securitized subprime loans," he explained. "Employee-owned companies are a better bet."

The Kent State center is now working with the Cleveland Foundation and other groups trying to stimulate economic activity in Cleveland's poorest neighborhoods. And it is working with the New York Department of Labor to start an employee ownership program with program design and staff training in January.

Elsewhere, Logue said, an effort by Australian labor unions has launched the Australian Employee Buyout Centre (AEBC) and it has just received funding from the government "down under" to start its operations.

There is momentum in tough economic times. What metro area independent businesses and Stillwater merchants are doing deserves replication elsewhere. The highly successful Northeast Entrepreneur Fund is a model for other regions and civic organizations. And what creative people in Ohio, New York and Australia are doing to stimulate and preserve their economies deserve close attention and replication here in Minnesota.

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