by Nikki Knisley
An evening of discussion centered around the experience of rural entrepreneurship and moderated by none other than MPR’s Kerri Miller revealed an array of small business experiences Sept. 20 in St. Joseph.
Part of the Rural Voice series was created when Miller approached her long time collaborator Theresa McFarland with the idea to explore what it takes to prepare a 21st century workforce in rural Minnesota.
Three of the Initiative Foundations in Minnesota, the South, the North and the Central Minnesota branches, co-partnered to support the series, and each one hosted its own town-hall event. Other sponsors with representatives present at the St. Joseph discussion included Compeer Financial, a member-owned Farm Credit cooperative system.
State Sen. Aric Putnam and St. Joseph Mayor Rick Schultz were on hand to advocate for St. Joseph specifically and rural Central Minnesota generally as a destination for others to visit, live and launch their businesses.
(Due to re-districting, St. Joseph now belongs to State Senate District 14, the District Putnam represents. He faces Republican challenger Tama Theis in a bid to retain his seat.)
The town hall was held at Krewe Restaurant in downtown St. Joseph, itself the result of the experiences and creativity of Chefs Mateo Mackbee and Erin Lucas. Nicknamed “the Krewe’s krü” on the restaurant website, each shared pieces of their experiences entering the rural entrepreneurial game. “I was so surprised by how quickly I was questioned and doubted when I shared our vision,” Lucas said, “but now my dad works for us, so it turned out OK.”
Mackbee explained their vision as centered on food, starting in the garden, going to the table, then sharing that process with youth. He said the goal is to cultivate in kids a love for the land, food and cooking. “That’s the real goal. The restaurant is just the means.”
Important reasons explaining the rural entrepreneurship renaissance were low cost of living but high quality of life, an abundance of practical and financial supports, including mentorship, and easier access to those supports. There were also intense challenges acknowledged, including access to financing, especially for women and persons of color, knowledge of important community networking relationships, and the smaller scale of rural life when navigating family and neighbor relationships.
When Miller asked her audience about the biggest barrier people face when thinking about relocating to rural communities to start their businesses, Compeer Financial officer Mark Koch was very clear with his answer: “Bank financing is a high, high barrier to entry, to getting in the game,” he explained.
Stories of “creative financing” were shared by many of the experienced business owners in the room. Kevin Doyle, owner of Forest Mushrooms, told the story of mortgaging the house to start his business in 1985. “Actually, it was her house,” Doyle said when asked about that risk.
Mark Varilek, president of the Initiative Foundation of Central Minnesota, described how they are intentionally positioned to partner with rural entrepreneurs. He briefly spoke about the Foundation’s gap loan program. It can provide “gap financing,” the difference between the amount the bank will finance and the amount needed to get your small business up and running. Plus it’s available at comparable commercial interest rates.
“Initiative Foundation of Central Minnesota has a boots on the ground knowledge of where the needs are,” said Bob McClintick, IFCM’s marketing and communication director. He indicated the initiative foundation also has the flexibility of implementing programming tailored to addressing those needs.
With the town hall winding down, Mayor Schultz gave the last pitch of the night. “We believe in and are confident in ourselves (in St. Joseph),…and we want you to come to our town.”
The town hall ended with a reception featuring chef Larsen’s key lime squares from the Flour and Flower kitchen.
To learn more about the Rural Voice project, go to ruralvoice.org.