By Andrew Tellijohn
Wendy Bursch has lived in Princeton her whole life.
She has made her living primarily in marketing for other businesses. But when the City of Princeton and much of its business community established a competition aimed at filling several downtown business vacancies through the use of incentives and publicity for the winners, Bursch took a stab at going out on her own.
Bursch is now executive director of the Central MinnesotaArt Co-Op, a membership-driven organization open to all artists, professional or not, where they can learn new techniques, teach or attend workshops, find buyers, and gather together to improve the community.
Left: Wendy Bursch won Princeton’s “It Starts Here” downtown revitalization contest with her art coop business concept.
The co-op won the community’s first “It Starts Here” competition, which entitled it to a $10,000 forgivable loan to help start the business. Other local companies and organizations made available an additional $10,000 in donated incentives such as 10 hours of payroll training from Manke Business Services, and portraits for a website or business cards from Skaalerud Photography.
Origins of the program
“It Starts Here” was a joint project started by the City of Princeton in partnership with the Princeton Area Chamber of Commerce and the Central Minnesota Small Business Development Center.
The program was born out of discussions among all the participants, who were united behind the goal of rejuvenating a downtown with 16 vacancies. Princeton Community Development Director Carie Fuhrman and former Princeton Area Chamber of Commerce Director Mary Chapman were the ones to initiate the idea, which was modeled after a similar program that helped rejuvenate Biddleford, Maine.
The initial meeting in May 2012 attracted 58 business owners and community activists, many of whom took part in subsequent portions of the program. The competition was advertised on the radio and in the newspaper and promoted on a website, a Facebook page, and on downtown street banners and reusable tote bags. It received additional play on KARE 11 news and in Twin Cities Business and other newspapers.
“It definitely created a buzz,” Fuhrman says.
And the efforts paid off. The contest generated 14 applications. One winner was selected, but at least some of the other businesses that applied have further explored opening in Princeton anyway, Fuhrman says.
Contest builds momentum
Business owners rose to the occasion under the realization that what is good for the community can only help their own businesses. “The group was looking for something that would make downtown Princeton more of a destination,” Fuhrman says.
“They didn’t limit it to any type of business.”
Chamber officials, who have become much more focused on downtown business issues in recent years, were strongly supportive of the effort.
“We needed to do something to improve downtown, add something to downtown, bring some businesses back to downtown,” says Scott Berry, president of the Chamber and owner of Berry Law Offices, which pledged $700 worth of pro bono legal services to winners. “We really wanted to be involved because it brought a different element into highlighting the city.”
Berry adds that he was encouraged by the number of local businesses that stepped up to the plate to donate services in recognition of the importance of a strong downtown. Many of the 14 proposals were exciting, he says, and would be positive additions to the downtown.
“There were some fun, fun things that were proposed,” he says. “There were some great business ideas.”
Right: Community Development Director Carie Fuhrman discusses the “It Starts Here” campaign with Mayor Paul Whitcomb.
Businesses wanted to give back
Everyone involved in the program celebrated the participation of existing local businesses for their willingness to help judge and provide services for winners. David Patten, owner of Patten Landscape Architecture, agreed to provide design consultation and sketches to help the owner of the winning business. He was impressed with the work city officials and other stakeholders did in drumming up both publicity for the competition and interest from potential business operators.
The lifelong Princeton resident thinks it is important, whether business or individual, to get involved in helping to better the community in which they live and work. Patten also likes the idea that if a new business opens in his hometown, it might save him time and gas on trips to meet those needs in other nearby communities.
“It doesn’t take a lot of time to make an impact,” Patten says. “In the long run, it benefits everybody.”
Barry Kirchoff, director of the Central Minnesota Small Business Development Center, helped plan and facilitate some of the events surrounding the program. The organization also stepped up by offering scholarships worth about $400 for winners to attend a comprehensive finance class. Kirchoff has been working with small businesses in Central Minnesota for years, and he says it was the participation of city officials and the business community that made the competition a success.
Revitalizing a struggling downtown is not an overnight project, Kirchoff says. But this was an innovative program that got people excited. “It raised awareness,” he adds. “The way people stepped to the plate, it shows people want downtown Princeton to survive and thrive. People are talking about it.”
Future of the art co-op
As for the winner, Central Minnesota Art Co-Op started in February 2013 with one gallery available to artists wishing to sell their work. Today it consists of two retail gallery rooms, classroom space, and studio rooms for clay, music, photography, and screen printing.
The co-op finished 2013 with 60 members, and in December alone sold 74 pieces of art. Bursch says the business is in talks to purchase additional space to expand its offerings in the community.
One goal is to cover the north wall of the building with a mural portraying an old fashioned drive-in theater. It would have a working screen that could be used to host Wendy Bursch (right) helps a customer in her shop, the Central Minnesota Art Co-Op.
film festivals. The organization is also partnering with businesses, such as a local Fairview Hospital, with the intention of providing on-site art galleries.
Bursch says the prizes that came along with winning the It Starts Here contest were fine incentives, but what really helped was the publicity. “Being published in the paper that we were the winner helped let people know this new business was here,” she says.
It was also very helpful to go to the meetings and meet business owners in town. “They were excited about it, so the word spread really quickly,” Bursch says. “To start out and have a town excited about you is awesome.”
The city is thrilled with its contest winner. “They filled a void,” Fuhrman says. “We knew there were individual artists out there. This gave them the opportunity to display art in a public location.”
The It Starts Here partners are happy with the success of the campaign. They were able to help fill one vacant space, and use some of the art generated to dress up a couple other vacant storefronts. So, they feel confident that the program has a future.
Additional vacancies have been filled by other businesses in the time since It Starts Here ended, though Fuhrman acknowledges she’s not certain those moves were tied to the competition. Nonetheless, It Starts Here raised awareness of the vacancy issues, brought some excitement to the community, and educated other potential business owners of the services and support they could receive in Princeton, Fuhrman says. All the partners plan to participate in a second It Starts Here campaign. The groups are discussing fine-tuning the program with more details coming soon.
“We are going to be retooling again and going through the process of figuring out what we need here in town,” Berry says. Meanwhile, Fuhrman says the buzz generated by It Starts Here has spread beyond Princeton. She has been fielding calls from other communities, both in Minnesota and outside the state, that hope to pursue a similar effort.
“That’s great to hear,” Fuhrman says. “We know we aren’t the only community dealing with these issues.”
Andrew Tellijohn is a freelance writer based in Richfield, Minn.
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