By Alice Wendel Funk, Originally Published in The Business Journal of Greater Keene, Brattleboro & Peterborough
There’s a buzz about rebuilding the economy in southeast Vermont and southwest New Hampshire. The buzz is coming from “Pollinators,” a group of rural community promoters determined to nurture our local economy.
“A ‘pollinator’ is a self-financing enterprise committed to boosting local business,” explained Michael Shuman to 75 people who attended his Local Economy Solutions and Pollinator Enterprises Workshop in April, sponsored by Monadnock Buy Local. Shuman, an author, attorney and local economist, gave inspiration to local business leaders for developing, launching and setting into motion their own pollinator businesses. He is the author/co-author of nine books, including The Local Economy Solution; Local Dollars, Local Sense; The Small Mart Revolution; and Going Local.
The idea is that economic development partnerships, or so-called “pollinator enterprises,” should focus on nurturing locally owned businesses.
“In nature, pollinators — like bees, butterflies or bats — carry pollen from plant to plant, and they instinctively know that the intermixing of these pollens nourishes the entire ecosystem,” explains Shuman. “Pollinator businesses similarly carry the best elements of one local business to another, thereby fertilizing all local businesses and creating a healthy entrepreneurial ecosystem.”
A healthy local economy is essential for a vibrant community. A “pollinator” allows the community to undertake one or more of the five key economic development functions including planning, purchasing, people, partnerships and purse.
“When bees instinctively do their job, they give rise to so much that we all benefit,” notes Jennifer Risley, executive director of Monadnock Buy Local, a nonprofit organization that helps nurture local businesses. “That’s the key idea with Pollinator Enterprises.”
TLC for our region
Shuman’s seminar explained the strategy and inspired local leaders to become involved with The Local Crowd Project. The Local Crowd (TLC), a Laramie, Wyoming-based company, received a Small Business Innovation Research grant in 2014 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to establish 30 demonstration sites, designed to educate rural communities to build an entrepreneurial ecosystem and spur local investments.
During TLC’s test period, two communities in Wyoming used the program and raised more than $12,000 for four local businesses in 30 days.
The USDA has now granted a Phase II award which includes 10 communities to participate, including the Monadnock Region. Other rural communities working together within this phase are Golden Hills, Iowa; Goshen, Indiana; Oregon, Illinois; Sauk Valley Region, Illinois; and Spoon River, Illinois; while Bozeman, Montana; Laramie, Wyoming; and Teton Valley, Idaho are ready to launch their platforms.
“We are pleased to have such a strong group of dedicated and visionary communities coming in as our second group of demonstration sites,” says Diane Wolverton, co-founder and CEO of The Local Crowd. These communities will learn strategies to buy, invest and shop locally to help increase their economy.
Crowdfunding or raising funds
“We see the TLC crowdfunding tool as the perfect opportunity for us to launch a ‘pollinator enterprise’ in our region,” says Risley. “This project is exactly the kind of work we hoped to inspire with our pollinator enterprise event (in April) with Michael Shuman.”
According to the National Small Business Association, 27 percent of small businesses were unable to access adequate capital in 2015.
“Pollinator businesses similarly carry the best elements of one local business to another, thereby fertilizing all local businesses and creating a healthy entrepreneurial ecosystem.” — Michael Shuman
Crowdfunding, or raising funds to support a project or business from a large number of people, is a viable alternative for entrepreneurs to fund their own businesses. This growth will lead to wealth and health of a community.
Risley adds that Shuman’s visit also brought more awareness to Monadnock Buy Local’s work and their vision and mission; in fact, their membership grew 13 percent this year.
As part of becoming more of a “pollinator” in the region, Monadnock Buy Local is exploring the feasibility of launching a loyalty card for the Monadnock Region. This card can offer gifts and discounts to users who spend their dollars at locally owned businesses, says Risley. The organization is researching loyalty card programs that will make that back-end of loyalty card endeavor easy for all participants. One program on her radar is called Supportland, which boasts a network of 150 independent businesses and 80,000 users who have collectively shifted $8 million of their spending to locally owned businesses.
“Over the years, we’ve received a number of requests for a gift card that can be used at any locally owned business in our region,” says Risley. The Keene Downtown Group expressed a lot of interest in a program like this, so we’re really optimistic that it will be well received by both residents and business owners.”
Fighting economic decline in region
The Green Economy Innovation Hub is another example of a pollinator enterprise with a vision for sustainable economic growth, which was spurred by the closure of Entergy Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Station, in Vernon, Vermont, at the end of 2014. More than 600 employees were laid off, magnifying the region’s economic decline.
“The closure of this facility truly affected the region, including Cheshire (N.H.), Franklin (Mass.) as well as Windham (Vt.) counties,” notes Laura Sibilia, director of economic development at the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation (BDCC).
The BDCC and the Southeast Vermont Economic Development Strategy (SeVEDS) received more than a half a million dollars in federal and state investments to pursue the “Green Economy Innovation Hub” to unite assets and build sustainability and resilience that will become a model for other rural communities nationally and internationally.
“It will take five years to develop this,” says Sibilia. “We will help the government understand what value of investing is needed in this region.”
A green hub
Kristin Mehalick, SeVEDS project manager at the BDCC says that the federally funded EDA grant has three parts. First, the group will conduct a Green Economy Innovation Hub and Building and Services Industry cluster analysis of the tristate region; this is expected to be completed by November 2016. The purpose of the analysis would be to pinpoint the region’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.Save Save
The second phase will conduct a feasibility study of the entrepreneurs in this area.
“We need to know if there is a potential for an accelerator in this region,” says Mehalick.
The third part of the EDA grant is to work with all of the planning commissions within Cheshire, Franklin and Windham Counties to come up with strategies to improve their local economies.
“We have some real champions as partners,” adds Mehalick. Abigail E. Abrash Walton, director of the Center for Climate Preparedness at Antioch University New England in Keene, and Kari Gaunt, director of sustainability at Keene State College, will be part of the leadership team.
“We’re doing our homework for the business sector,” says Sibilia. “We’re looking at opportunities for new businesses and expanding businesses.” This local initiative will attract talent, financial capital, manufacturers, consulting firms and visitors into the region.
Despite the fact that the economy within the region looks bleak now, these busy bees are helping pollinate our area to return the riches and soundness of our rural communities.
“If done correctly, economic development could bring a community more jobs, more wealth, a larger tax base and greater prosperity,” says Shuman.