Program to support small business going countywide

A support program for small business owners and those looking to start a business, piloted by the city of Coon Rapids for the past year, is about to go countywide.

The Anoka County Housing and Redevelopment Authority Jan. 28 authorized county participation in the Open to Business program offered by the Metropolitan Continuum of Community Developers.

The HRA also approved spending up to $50,000 on the program initially, money which will be taken from the general administration budget, according to Karen Skepper, county community and governmental relations director and HRA executive director.

Skepper estimates that it will cost the HRA $5,000 for every business that takes part in the program.

Coon Rapids launched its program last spring with a budget of $15,000.

Through the Coon Rapids Open to Business program, Rob Smolund, Metropolitan Continuum of Community Developers business adviser, provides free business consultations for two hours the third Tuesday of each month at the Coon Rapids City Center.

According to Matt Brown, Coon Rapids community development specialist, Smolund is also flexible, meeting business owners for consultations on a different date and at another location if that’s more convenient.

A countywide program would have more frequent consultation times available and Metropolitan Continuum of Community Developers has indicated that it will bring on board a staff member specifically for the Anoka County program, Skepper said.

But the logistics for the county program, including number of office hours and locations, remain to be worked out and she is scheduling meetings with MCCD representatives to make those decisions, according to Skepper.

“We want to be as accessible as possible,” Skepper said.

The goal is to roll out the county program in the spring, she said.

At that point, the Coon Rapids program will not be renewed for another year, Brown said.

“We want to provide a seamless transition from our program to the county’s,” he said.

Right now, Coon Rapids has the only Open to Business program in the county, Brown said.

Skepper became aware of the Open to Business program when she was contacted by Coon Rapids and met with Marc Nevinski, community development director, and Brown, she said.

They told Skepper that the Open to Business program would work well countywide and she agreed, according to Skepper.

“We have always had an excellent relationship with the city of Coon Rapids,” Skepper said.

The city has an economic development vision, she said.

“What has worked in Coon Rapids will work for the county, too,” Skepper said.

It was Coon Rapids officials that made Skepper aware of the economic gardening program a few years ago, which has since been introduced by the county and has been a great success, she said.

The Open to Business program will operate in the same way that it has in Coon Rapids, Skepper said.

It will fill a missing piece in the county’s economic development activities – providing support for small business owners and those interested in starting a business, she said.

What prompted Coon Rapids to sign up for the Open to Business program is that its economic development programs had focused on manufacturing, large scale projects, according to Brown.

“We wanted to offer some help to small business owners and retailers,” Brown said.

“In the older commercial areas of the city, there are lots of small business owners,” he said.

According to Brown, Open to Business provides one-on-one counseling advice given by Smolund, Brown said.

“It is primarily a technical assistance program,” he said.

But Metropolitan Continuum of Community Developers also offers a financial component, lines of credit through large banks that small business owners might not be able to get elsewhere, Brown said.

The Coon Rapids program is open to all Coon Rapids residents, as well as owners of businesses in Coon Rapids, he said.

The consultations can help business owners with planning and organizing their ideas, financial management, marketing, regulatory compliance and leasing or purchasing property, Brown said.

Brown gave four examples of how the Open to Business program has helped Coon Rapids businesses and residents.

• A Coon Rapids resident received consulting advice that helped her open a beauty salon with a $1,000 micro grant.

• A commercial property owner learned about better options for using his property.

• A retail food store owner got help to enhance his merchandising and window displays.

• A Coon Rapids resident was given guidance to help evaluate a business purchase.

The city has been pleased with the response and use of the Open to Business program, according to Brown.

Smolund has told him that use of the program has been typical for a city the size of Coon Rapids, Brown said.

Metropolitan Continuum of Community Developers, which has been in existence for some 30 years, is an association of nonprofit community development organizations committed to expanding the wealth and resources of neighborhoods through housing and economic development initiatives, according to its website.

More information about the Open to Business program can be found online at www.opentobusinessmn.org.

Peter Bodley is at peter.bodley@ecm-inc.com

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