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Create Here initiative seeks revamp for 2020

First-year experimental program fails to garner applicant interest

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A first-year initiative aimed at bringing entrepreneurs or existing businesses to rural southwest Missouri didn’t pan out as expected.

Organizers of the Create Here program that ran through this summer only received one application to present a business plan. They had hoped for two or three good applicants that could generate a new business in each of the four participating communities: Aurora, Buffalo, Marshfield and Sarcoxie.

“We probably just had poor expectations,” said Hrishue Mahalaha, chief economic adviser for Innovation Economy Partners, a Cleveland firm that developed Create Here locally with Community Foundation of the Ozarks Inc.

The initiative, part of CPO’s Growth in the Rural Ozarks economic development program, launched April 15 and solicited business applications through June. Even the lone applicant didn’t end up being a match for the program and was thus eliminated, Mahalaha said.

“The fact that this is the first year of doing it, we should have had more realistic expectations that this is going to be an experiment,” he said. “That allows us to really evaluate the dynamics of where things are broken and where we have an opportunity.”

Communities that sign on to Create Here agree to provide incentives and support services to businesses or entrepreneurs. Valued at a combined $10,000, officials say incentives include free marketing and legal support, economic training consultation and one-year memberships in the local chamber of commerce.

Early assessment
Organizers say they aren’t discouraged by the lack of response this summer.

Mahalaha said the program has achieved some tangible first-year wins. A big one was the work with Missouri State University, he said. The website, CreateHere.biz, was built by the MSU Advertising Team.

“I can’t understate the value of MSU and their students,” he said, noting the ad team visited each community to compile promotional content for the website. “They did such a brilliant job of helping us craft the message, craft the videos.”

Hollie Elliott, executive director for Dallas County Economic Development Group, said the students came to Buffalo to visit with community leaders about businesses that could be a good fit for the community.

“That was a really good process,” she said.

Elliott, who previously worked at the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce, started in 2017 at the Dallas County organization, a 501(c)(3) centered on economic and community development. She said the arrival of new Buffalo restaurant Curly Que Barbecue LLC was the result of conversations made during the very early process of Create Here.

The owners of the restaurant, which also has a Bolivar location, didn’t come to town specifically because of the initiative, Elliott said, and they didn’t receive any incentives to set up shop at 1350 S. Ash St. However, she credited the activity of Chad and Nicole Bryan with wedding venue Market 116 LLC, for making the connection. The Bryans are involved in both Create Here and CPO’s GRO, she added.

“We were really happy to see that as an outcome,” she said. “It’s a different kind of program, unique to anything like it out there.”

Though Create Here isn’t directly responsible for the new Buffalo restaurant, Mahalaha said connections can be made through CreateHere.biz, which highlights viable properties in participating towns.

On the Marshfield page of Create Here’s website, the property at 941 E. Hubble Drive has multiple uses for a prospective business, said Duane Lavery, president and CEO of GRO Marshfield. Coming to Marshfield from Tennessee in June for the newly created GRO Marshfield position, Lavery said he’s impressed with the potential of Create Here. He’s still working on getting familiar with the town and his new job, but he has hopes of expanding the property inventory for the initiative.

“Once I start working through my priorities, I want to begin building up a good amount of properties that would be good opportunities for businesses. It’s almost like taking business development one step farther, such as doing expedited permitting. I have a whole toolbox of incentives here that might help,” he said, pointing to landlord assistance for infill work, deferred lease payments, microfinance loan options and legal advice offered by the city.

Lessons learned
The application process for the initiative was intended to lead into a business pitch competition, but it never took place, Mahalaha said. Whether that aspect returns to the program will be discussed between community organizers and participants in the next several weeks.

Mahalaha said all four of the communities are interested in staying involved next year.

“We may be doing some different things with marketing and promotion,” Lavery added.

Mahalaha agreed the initiative fell short in the promotional department.

“We need to do a better job of promoting the program and working with regional partners to make that happen,” he said. “The only failure you have in economic development is when you fail to dissect your event, understand the learning [and] apply those insights in a meaningful manner so you can do something more impactful and more effective the next go around.”

Elliott said getting involved was a way for Buffalo to try something different.

“It was certainly an experiment and our community is not afraid to try new things and be that pilot,” she said. “It might not have worked beautifully the first time, but we’ll try again and make tweaks to see if we can make it better next time.”

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