Main Street workshops offer advice and mentoring to small business owners
BY ANTHONY WESTBURY
If providing expert advice and coaching for entrepreneurs can help new businesses avoid potholes on the road to success using the Business Accelerator Program, perhaps the same approach could be of use to business owners in Main Street programs.
That was the idea behind a pilot Better Business Program first suggested by the state Main Street organization to the Florida Small Business Development Center state headquarters. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Main Street Florida was anxious for downtown merchants to have access to business advice and expertise.
The state Florida SBDC office agreed and contacted Tom Kindred at the Florida SBDC at Indian River State College. Kindred had formerly been Main Street Fort Pierce manager prior to 1991. He created the pilot program for five Main Street organizations on the Treasure Coast: Fort Pierce, Lincoln Park, Vero Beach, Okeechobee and Stuart.
The Main Street Partnering for Better Business program consists of at least five training workshops, mentoring from experienced business consultants provided by the Florida SBDC and other services.
Main Street Fort Pierce and Vero Beach completed their programs this summer. Okeechobee and Stuart have programs scheduled and Lincoln Park has ongoing sessions.
“A partnership between historic business districts and the Florida SBDC is a natural [fit] because they are textbook owner-operators dealing with the challenges of a small business [often without any other help], and we provide assistance for that sector,” Kindred said.
“Logistically, they’re all in one geographic place, so it’s easier for us [at SBDC] to provide service and advice [to individual merchants if needed]. It’s a natural partnership that just makes sense.”
Lincoln Park is an economically disadvantaged area of northwest Fort Pierce that has long been plagued by crime, poverty and a low rate of new business formation.
Pamela Carithers, Lincoln Park Main Street’s manager, said that Clifton Vaughn, a Florida SBDC business consultant, scheduled five free workshops for September and October.
The long-term intent behind the program, Carithers said, is to establish one-on-one mentoring relationships with experienced business development professionals in the region. It is hoped that this will enhance business and entrepreneurial skills, create jobs and assist in the expansion and growth of the Lincoln Park business community.
The free workshops ran from Sept. 7 through Oct. 5 and were held at the Blackburn Center on Avenue D. The sessions concentrated on polishing marketing skills, particularly in the digital and social media arenas. Other workshops on time management and examining the importance of maintaining better financial literacy [gaining access to capital, recordkeeping, etc.] were also covered.
In addition to the no-cost one-on-one consulting, the course also included three hours of website analysis and participating businesses received exposure via the SBDC’s Small Business Florida radio show.
As an added incentive, participating businesses were eligible for up to a $500 grant if they completed four of the five sessions. The money must be used for business enhancement services.
Carithers noted that new business formation and activity had enjoyed reasonable success pre-COVID, but there was a sense of complacency in some parts of the community. Post-COVID, she said, “people have had to reinvent themselves. The shutdown caused people to rethink where they are, and more people are launching new businesses. I hope that continues.”
Here are other Treasure Coast Main Street programs that have successfully completed the series of workshops.
FORT PIERCE MAIN STREET
One such group is the [downtown] Fort Pierce Main Street organization. Longtime manager Doris Tillman, who celebrated beginning her 31st year in the position in August, noted that “when COVID happened, it was a big shock to everybody. [Downtown] Fort Pierce was forced to shut down. We did all we could to support local businesses.
“After the state Main Street organization disseminated information about grant aid, we reached out to Tom Kindred [of the Florida SBDC at IRSC]. He came here to personally interview business owners about grants that could help them.
“The biggest problem we’ve encountered is that some of our business owners are a bit lax in keeping financial records and bookkeeping,” she said. “It’s tough for them to come up with the required paperwork.”
To publicize the training program, Tillman said she advertised on Facebook through the Downtown Business Association, targeting hospitality and retail clothing businesses. Main Street Fort Pierce offered six classes covering the areas of understanding sales and marketing, an introduction to internet marketing and social media. Time management and financial literacy were also covered.
Tillman noted there was a “very, very high level of enthusiasm among business owners. They got very excited learning new stuff.”
MAIN STREET VERO BEACH
Main Street Vero Beach also volunteered to launch its own Better Business Program. Manager Susan Gromis reported that the workshops ended in September and that 11 businesses took part.
Unlike Fort Pierce Main Street’s concentration on downtown merchants, Vero Beach attendees are more spread across the city, including the executive director of a nonprofit agency, Gromis said.
Gromis said participants were “very interested in the knowledge” they are acquiring. “I’ve gotten very positive feedback and they really enjoy the lectures,” she said.
Gromis had hoped for more participants but said the short time frame in which they had to pull the program together and its timing in August, when some business owners were traveling or on vacation, may have contributed to the relatively low numbers. She had hoped for 35-40 people at the lectures. Perhaps adjusting the dates of future sessions would help, Gromis suggested.
MAIN STREET OKEECHOBEE
Paulette Wise, executive director of the Okeechobee Chamber of Commerce, reached out to Kindred at the Florida SBDC to take part in the Better Business program in partnership with Main Street Okeechobee.
Wise said classes were scheduled to run throughout September and into early October.
“But I think it’s going to be great,” Wise said. “It’s early days [as far as assessing the number of businesses taking part], “but we will be sending out more details of the classes using social media and personal emails to all our 300 members. SBDC is beginning to come into our community and I’m looking forward to that happening.”
The Main Street Better Business Program looks to be a valuable and useful precursor to more advice and mentoring from SBDC subject experts. So far, all participants have shown great interest and enthusiasm in learning more about the basics of business. More in-depth classes are just over the horizon and should help strengthen this important sector of the local business community.
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