Editor’s note: This story, written by Casey Penn, appears in the latest magazine issue of Talk Business Arkansas, which you can read online at this link.

While many Delta communities are struggling to survive, Will Staley and Terrance Clark are working to make sure at least one of them thrives.

Staley recalls his first impressions of Helena, Arkansas, a city he first visited during his youth in the company of his parents, Jerry and Carolyn Staley. The city made an impression on him even then, with its bold Delta colors, hand-painted signage and a history rarely seen in suburbia or metropolitan America.

“I knew when I first came here that there was something mysterious and even romantic about this city on the Mississippi River,” said Staley. “I saw potential for growth.”

THE BIRTH OF A NON-PROFIT
Since 2009, Staley and Clark have been working to unleash that potential. These natural leaders are taking strategic measures to revitalize Helena’s economy and community through their work at Thrive, the non-profit they cofounded.

You could say that Staley and Clark met by design. Fellow students at the Kansas City Art Institute, the two became friends and found they shared an interest in not only design projects but also in helping underserved segments of the population.

After graduation, the two went separate ways but kept in touch. Clark remained in Kansas City, gaining work experience, while Staley pursued a Master’s of Industrial Design at New York’s Pratt Institute. Feeling “larger responsibilities as a young professional,” Staley settled on a thesis project through which he could use design to provide community support. He aptly christened his vision “Thrive” and chose to implement it in Helena, the Delta gem that had first tugged at his heart some years before.

With a poverty rate at 34.7% and a 50% loss of population since 1960, Helena is certainly a candidate for improvement. At the same time, it’s a place undergoing a renaissance, according to Staley.

As “Thrive” progressed, Staley and Clark conversed regularly about the project and about their mutual visions for helping communities. Around the time of Staley’s graduation from Pratt, Clark entered the University’s Master of Design Management program. These friends became roommates and began collaborating on a business plan that would transform “Thrive” from a thesis project to a real world, non-profit business.

“Terrance went to Pratt to become equipped to ‘speak suit’ as folks from his program would say,” joked Staley. “It worked out, and we’re still working away.”

In addition to their education, both gained early on-the-job experiences. While Clark completed his studies at Pratt, he also did page layout for a magazine and “slung pickles” at the Union Square New York farmer’s market. Staley, on the other hand, earned design experience through an internship for the Smithsonian Institute, a year-long fellowship with the William J. Clinton Foundation, and by taking on freelance graphic design projects.

By 2009, the designers were ready to implement their plan.

“After many visits to and from, we left Brooklyn and moved to Helena,” recalled Staley. “We fed ourselves with Terrance taking on strategic planning contracts with local non-profits and with me taking on graphic design and marketing contracts with local small businesses and non-profits. At this point we were a young, inexperienced non-profit trying to figure out how to gain trust in a new community and take the first step towards fulfilling our vision.”

THE LAUNCH
Since its formal launch from its perch on Cherry Street in Helena, Thrive has successfully offered the local community affordable strategic planning and marketing services. The 501(c)3 brings in money from about seven different sources that include a combination of public and private grant funds, corporate donations, family foundations, and good old hard work.
“We provide below-market rate branding and marketing work to regional NPOs and small businesses,” explains Staley, of just one of the firm’s unique revenue models.

Being a non-profit doesn’t mean Thrive’s founders aren’t also running a business.

“We make money from pretty much any rock we can pull money out from under,” said Clark, who is quick to defend their methods in a county with a history of abuse of non-profit funds. “We’re not seeking grant money to pay our salaries, and we know that for this to exist [long-term], we have to work as hard as we can to make sure it’s sustainable.”

After just one year of passing muster, Thrive had already caught the attention of city managers who approached Staley and Clark about running a small business incubator, the Helena Entrepreneur Center (HEC). Asked by Doug Friedlander, former Teach For America alum and current Phillips County Chamber of Commerce director, and other city leaders, the two stepped up to fill this new role.

Originating from the Phillips County Community Strategic Plan, the HEC is a unique resource for new and struggling entrepreneurs. Thrive works within HEC to implement its Start-Up Program, a one-year course to teach small business owners how to start a business from the ground up.

“We just finished our three-year grant from the Walton Family Foundation to get it rolling,” said Clark, who formulated the program’s curriculum and instructs the two-phase program with help from fellow business experts provided through the Small Business Administration, the local chamber and area businesses.

“That’s how we’ve done everything at Thrive,” Clark elaborated. “For those things I might not have 40 years experience at, we find someone to help. We have this curriculum – these lectures I’ve prepared – and we have our Chamber director come and talk about business retention and expansion. A lot of people don’t understand the amount of work it takes to run a business. If you’re a welder, you’ve got to be more than just a good welder – you need to be an accountant, know how to do paperwork, stuff like that. Nothing is foggy by the end of this class.”

The start-up class creates a filter of sorts, Clark explained. “If they make it through the eight-week class, the chance of their sticking with it is higher.”

To date, 66 people have signed up and taken at least one consulting session, 42 have completed the eight-week class, and Thrive is working with only eight new businesses and six existing businesses.

In Phase II, Staley and Clark roll up their sleeves for more tailored interaction with entrepreneurs. “I’ll do everything from go with them to the bank to help them set up their bank account for the first time to engineering spec drawings for a patent for them,” said Clark. “Whatever we can do, we do for these people who have given their commitment to us.”

ECONOMIC & COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT
Staley and Clark believe that economic development goes hand-in-hand with community development. In 2011, they designed and implemented Helena Second Saturdays, a monthly family-friendly event held April through September that provides a fun marketplace for local merchants, artisans and musicians.

“From 8 a.m. until 8 p.m., there is something fun going on all day on Cherry Street,” says Staley. “The downtown revitalization campaign leverages the area’s cultural strengths and its people to create economic impact through development of tourism and unification of the community.”

Second Saturdays also include a farmers’ market, a shopping initiative called the Cherry Street Shop-Hop, and in the evening, the Downtown Street Fair.

“The street fair is an all-hands on deck, community-pride lifting event for an area that many times gets bogged down in negativity,” said Staley, who points out the positives that have come from the program. “We’ve grown the crowd from 150 to 600 and we will continue to monitor the economic impact among shops and market vendors. In 2011 and 2012, sales among open shops grew 150% on Second Saturdays.”

When it comes to thriving, the most important piece of the puzzle is people. Helena is part of an effective program to bring people in, but mostly for the short-term. Teach for America brings in top graduates from outside to teach in rural areas, but only a few of them have made Helena their permanent home. These few have been key, however, and have included TFA alum, Doug Friedlander, the current director of the Phillips County Chamber of Commerce.

According to Clark, plenty of TFA alums would stay if there was something for them other than teaching.

“We’ve just had another wave of people leave,” he said. “That’s the thing. It’s not in TFA’s mission to get people to stay here, to get them to register to vote here, to get them to city council meetings here,” he said.

To address retention, Thrive hopes to launch in 2015 The Impact Project Program, a year-long opportunity for TFAs who don’t want to continue teaching in the area but do want to make an impact in the Delta. The program would offer free room and board to program alums after their second year of teaching. Marketing to TFA alums just makes sense.

“They’ve already cut the mustard, so to speak. They already know this place,” said Clark. “We don’t need 200 of them to stay. We need 10 of them to stay, because they’re going to be the most important ten.”

With Impact, the two also plan to reach out to graduate schools outside the state that require field work. The program will be ideal also, Staley indicated, for Helena natives who are within the TFA age range who have moved away but now want to come home.

“We want to offer this to anyone in the United States that wants to create positive change,” said Staley.

Living in the Delta isn’t always easy, but these Thrive founders and business entrepreneurs have made it their home.

“There are market gaps here that need to be filled. With more people coming here for startups and with TFA folks here, this place is turning,” said Staley.

Clark, too, wants to see other visionaries get their start in his adopted hometown, and throws them a gauntlet.

“Entrepreneurs should see Helena as a land of opportunity,” he said. “It’s big enough to fit 50,000 comfortably, and we’ve got 12,900,” he said. “There are a lot of piles of gold in this town. They just need to be polished.”

Learn more about Thrive at this link.

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