By ALAN J. ORTBALS
Since 2014, the city of Columbia has focused a bigger part of its economic development efforts to help startup businesses and emerging businesses identify and secure financing, advice and encouragement in addition to other expertise that’s available.
Columbia’s Community and Economic Development Department (CEDD) acts as a concierge for entrepreneurs, helping owners of start-ups and emerging enterprises to successfully navigate the often bewildering complications of business planning, financing, marketing, personnel, regulations and other concerns through direct services and referrals. The city’s revolving loan fund is one of the most popular services offered and is the point of first contact with CEDD for many local entrepreneurs.
“It’s a different way of doing economic development than when I started in this field 30-plus years ago,” said Paul Ellis, director of community and economic development for the city of Columbia. “Back then, it was all about chasing smokestacks. It was all about finding a big company somewhere else and convincing them to come to your community. We’ve had some success with that and I think we’ll have more success with that but economic development is also about building the infrastructure so that you’ll have more success with your locally grown businesses. It really comes down to entrepreneurism.”
Over the past two years Monroe County entrepreneurs have placed in the top three positions in the Metro East Start-Up Challenge Business Plan Competition, an annual event to identify, encourage, and reward excellence in entrepreneurship: Stumpy’s Spirits ranked second in 2014 and the Stubborn German Brewery placed third last year.
Ellis, who has a history of working with entrepreneurs, is chairing the entrepreneurism plank for the Leadership Council Southwestern Illinois.
“I started an angel network in the Pacific Northwest and I’ve worked a lot with entrepreneurs,” Ellis said. “An important component to it is mentoring. I’ve been promoting mentoring across the Metro East. We tend to look at mentoring like a blind date. Let’s put this seasoned business person and this start-up person together and see what develops. I’m trying to get a little more focused on skill sets. There are skill sets that every entrepreneur needs. The idea is to identify an entrepreneur’s skill gaps and pair them with a mentor who has the skills that person lacks.”
Monroe County has also initiated the CEO (Creating Entrepreneurial Opportunities) program, which aims to get high school students excited about entrepreneurism.
“But we also need to be working with what I call ‘encore entrepreneurs,’” Ellis said. “There are twice as many people over 50 starting businesses than there are people under 25. We need to do more to help them.”