Editor’s note:  This article, written by Jeanni Brosius, first appeared in the latest magazine edition of Talk Business Arkansas. You can access the complete magazine online at this link.

Armed with a new study and a renewed focus on small business, south Arkansas business leaders and a Delta advocacy group are aiming to grow a new generation of companies one employee at a time.

The Delta Regional Authority has joined forces with an El Dorado regional business coalition to invest in south Arkansas’ economic future. The partnership was highlighted by the January announcement of the El Dorado Small Business and Jobs Accelerator program.

In conjunction with South Arkansas Community College, DRA has invested $185,000 in a new El Dorado Incubator Environment business accelerator, dubbed EDIE’s Village, which is scheduled to open in July. It is located in two renovated houses on the north side of the college’s campus on Cedar Street. Although the business incubator is located in El Dorado, its reach will span to four counties: Ashley, Bradley, Chicot, and Union.

The idea behind EDIE’s Village is to create a strong economy in the Delta region through locally owned businesses by giving those entreprenuers the tools and knowledge to succeed.

“Small businesses are the ones carrying the economy, especially in Arkansas,” says Chris Masingill, DRA federal co-chairman.

The DRA is a federal-state partnership that helps create jobs and build communities in 252 counties in the the Delta. The Authority has created or retained nearly 17,000 jobs since its inception more than a decade ago.

“This investment honors the hard work of our region’s small businesses and entrepreneurs,” says Masingill. “They are truly the lifeblood of the Delta economy. “Business incubators like EDIE’s Village will be on the front lines of that growth, helping these businesses create jobs today and a stronger Delta economy for years to come.”

Locally-owned small businesses have created the majority of the net new jobs in the Delta region, according to a study by the Delta Regional Authority and Dr. James Stapleton, Executive Director of the Douglas C. Greene Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship at Southeast Missouri State University.

Stapleton’s research shows that in the past 20 years about 90 percent of the new net jobs created in the Delta have been created by local, small businesses with nine or fewer employees.

“Small businesses and entrepreneurs are the past, present and future of the Delta economy,” says Masingill, who believes that by building up those small businesses, the economy will strengthen and grow.

“Our concept is taking dreams to reality,” he adds. “A startling fact is that small businesses maintain and create new jobs for the long-term. When the economy starts turning bad, the big guys have to reduce size, but the small businesses hunker down and are linked to the local economy at a local level.”

Masingill says the investment will fund a student-run business program for 25 to 30 students, offer low-cost retail space for 20 entrepreneurs, leverage resources from the Small Business Administration and the Housing and Urban Development, and provide one-on-one business development and product marketing for participating entrepreneurs.

“The student-run business will be a T-shirt printing shop,” says Jim Roomsburg, dean of business and technical development at South Arkansas Community College.  “We will develop two new classes: one in operations and one in planning.”

The program is also available to small businesses in a five-county area that don’t need to use the retail space at EDIE’s Village but could take advantage of the mentoring and planning advice the program offers.

“EDIE’s Village will provide a business incubator and give small-business entrepreneurs a chance to get started,‚” Roomsburg says. “El Dorado’s economy is mostly petro-chemical based. We are trying to help people with new ideas start themselves out.”

Because many small business owners know their products, they may lack the skills and knowledge in marketing those products and running a business.

“They are not CPAs or lawyers,” Masingill says about most entrepreneurs. “We want to encourage and strengthen people’s support of small business, give them access to capital, and offer mom and pop shops access to loans, technical assistance, and business to business marketing.”

Masingill says the DRA is building partnerships across its south Arkansas footprint to support its latest effort.

The Arkansas Women’s Business Center, which is also located on the college’s campus, is recruiting around 40 entrepreneurs to participate in the program.

“They will have to be an Operations JumpStart graduate of a client of the Arkansas Women’s Business Center in order to participate,” says Shay Kalden, marketing coordinator for the AWBC.

Operation JumpStart was created in 2006 by the Greene Center at Southeast Missouri State University, where the small business study was conducted.

The Operation JumpStart program has expanded throughout the United States to provide supportive services to micro-enterprise development agencies. Its course material helps its participants determine whether a business idea is feasible by examining the idea from every angle. It also offers entrepreneurs help with concept development, market research, competition profiling, pricing, and financial projections.

No one is expecting overnight success, but Masingill hopes that in five years or less the program’s impact will be making a visible difference.

“My hope is simple: that we play a role in helping turn the dreams of our Arkansas entrepreneurs into reality,” he said.

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