More than 40 rural leaders from eight small towns across North Carolina gathered in October at the Rural Center for the kick-off training of the new STEP for Small Business pilot program. During the two-day workshop, representatives from Lansing (Ashe County), Marion (McDowell), Elkin (Surry), Scotland Neck (Halifax), Elizabethtown (Bladen), Plymouth (Washington), Star (Montgomery) and Siler City (Chatham) talked, brainstormed and experimented with how they would engage their entrepreneurs and small business owners in their communities to help them grow and succeed.
Consultants Don Macke and Deb Markley from the national nonprofit, the Center for Rural Entrepreneurship, led the workshop. They have worked in small communities across the country and have developed and deployed a model program to help rural communities grow their entrepreneurs and small business communities. This is the first time this model has been applied in North Carolina, and it was made possible by a matching grant from USDA Rural Development.
During this two-a-half-year program, each community will work with a coach to set up a framework in which to identify and counsel entrepreneurs and small business owners in their communities. Each town will also establish a credit advisory team, which will vet loan applications from small businesses aiming to leverage a portion of the $100,000 loan pool set aside for each community. This loan pool is managed by the Rural Center and is part of its Microenterprise Loan Program.
The STEP for Small Business project is intended to build the community economic development capacity of these eight small towns by providing a comprehensive business development program of community coaching, technical assistance, leadership training, and strategy implementation support. The goal is to support and nurture entrepreneurs and small businesses, who in turn will invest in their communities by starting or expanding businesses, creating new jobs and contributing to the overall quality of life in their small towns.