ELIZABETHTOWN — About 40 people turned out Monday at the Cape Fear Vineyard & Winery for a brainstorming session on how to improve small business potential in Bladen County.
Chuck Heustess, executive director for Bladen County Economic Development, began the gathering by informing guests that a recent $250,000 grant stipulation necessitated spending $10,000 for small business development efforts, and the meeting was an attempt to generate ideas for spending $9,000 of it.
To ensure that everyone was starting with the same understanding, Heustess informed the group that small business is defined as one that generates $7.5 to $20 million annually or has fewer than 500 enployees, pointing out that such a definition encompasses all but the largest industrial employers in Bladen County, even covering many private, local companies that are actually conglomerates of several smaller entities, such as Campbell Oil, Clark Brothers, and Taylor Manufacturing.
Prior to Monday, Heustess received 14 ideas and shared those with the group. Some of the ideas included a one-stop location for permits that would include both an explanation of the permit process for each area in Bladen County and links to necessary documents, an initiative to encourage local shopping, and tax incentives for small businesses.
Many of the ideas centered around encouraging tourism in order to stimulate growth, which would attract business owners to the area. Those ideas included a Bladen County visitor center, investing in the Chamber of Commerce to expand its finances, hiring a marketing director for the area, and creating a promotional video.
Other ideas aimed at improving Bladen County as a whole in order to attract businesses included revitalization of homes and businesses that have fallen into disrepair and improving the work force in general, which turned the conversation to education. Heustess and many of the business owners present expressed frustration with the lack of soft skills, which is the set of skills necessary to succeed in work, such as proper dress, punctuality, being able to drive oneself to work, and etiquette. Several attendees also noted a lack of basic educational skills, such as elementary math, in their employees.
Bladen’s Bloomin’ is currently working with the town of Elizabethtown to convert the old post office building into a small business incubator, which will include a small office space for seven or eight startup businesses, with a common conference room, break room, lobby, and restrooms. Startups will rent a small space (160-200 square feet) to get the business off the ground. When the incubator begins to generate income, the revenue will be invested in a similar effort in Bladenboro.
“This will continue the revitalization of the town that’s been happening, make a good impact on the town, and provide an opportunity for small businesses to start in a nice environment,” said Heustess.
A “shark tank” opportunity was suggested, in which local residents interested in starting a business would appear in front of a panel of local business owners, investors, or economic development professionals with their business idea, and the panel would choose a winner. The individual with the top idea would win startup cash, office supplies, or free space in the small business incubator.
With the vast number of ideas and only $9,000 to spend, two suggestions were given to generate income. A lodging tax — 3 percent was suggested by Elizabethtown Inn owner Chris Adams — and crowd funding were voiced as possible revenue sources so that more of the ideas could be implemented.
Many other ideas were suggested and, at the end of the meeting, attendees voted on the ideas in which they were most interested. Heustess is in the process of tabulating the results, and the Bladen Journal will post those when they become available.
Chrysta Carroll can be reached by calling 910-862-4163.