A few weeks ago, the USDA announced the decision to award a grant to a non-profit organization in Denver known as Downtown Colorado, Inc. (DCI). In the coming weeks, the impact of that grant will travel all the way across the High Plains to towns and business leaders located in six rural communities selected from a pool of applicants. Those communities include Center, Paonia, Limon, Saguache, Gunnison and…yup…Eads.
The grant is part of the USDA’s Rural Business Development Grant (RBDG) program, which was created to support the development and growth of rural small and emerging businesses with fewer than 50 employees and less than $1 million in gross revenues.
For its part, DCI is a nonprofit membership organization committed to building better communities through education and technical assistance. With a history that dates back to 1982 and more than 150 dues-paying, membership organizations that include downtown organizations, local governments, development and improvement districts, consultants, individuals and others involved in downtown and community development, DCI has a proven track record of helping small businesses and communities throughout the state.
Through the RBDG program, Downtown Colorado will provide workshops and technical assistance programs to rural communities and associated businesses throughout Colorado.
Far from being “just another federal grant” involving “just another non-profit”, both the RBDG and DCI have reputations for being hands-on, result-oriented programs. This particular program is no exception and is born of a collection of data driven, reality based facts.
If small businesses are the backbone of America, small businesses in small towns are the backbone, the heart, the lungs and, often, the brain. Recent, numerous studies conducted by a broad variety of universities and marketing consultants have consistently reached the same conclusion: having a “digital presence”—typically defined as a Facebook page or a website—is absolutely key to a successful business.
Of course, this applies to businesses located in urban areas. However, it is even more necessary with businesses located in small towns. Unfortunately, those are also the areas where a digital presence is most lacking.
DCI’s program is best described in the words of its Executive Director Katherine Correll. “In Colorado,” she begins, “business communities in rural, low-income areas are typically the most in need of, but least served by, training programs or technical assistance to improve their overall performance and achieve sustainability. Downtown business districts struggle to remain occupied and active with this lack of resources and advocacy. This is compounded by digital marketplaces and online shopping, which threaten the success of brick-and-mortar businesses in struggling areas.”
Also, unlike the majority of grants (and thanks to the total support of the USDA), this program requires no matching funds or fees to participate.
What is required, however, are business leaders and community stakeholders who are 100% committed to participating in the program and being actively involved in its different phases.
So, what benefits can participants expect to receive from participating?
Again, Katherine Correll puts it best. “DCI’s Digital Marketing for Regional Attraction program will provide long-term benefit to local businesses and leaders by providing them with a clear and easy-to-follow action plan to improve the effectiveness of regional digital marketing efforts,” she states. “The program will first identify needs and priorities to work on based on a survey developed for each region. A planning meeting will then be held with stakeholders including local businesses and business support entities. This meeting will identify priorities and actions to accomplish those priorities.”
A line from the movie Jerry McGuire comes to mind. Essentially, DCI wants to “help them help us!”
DCI’s program involves three phases. At this point, the six communities—including Eads—are all guaranteed a slot in Phase One. As Correll references in her description, the program begins with gathering information via a region-specific survey that will assess each individual business’ online presence as well as marketing programs and practices. Additional information will be gathered at a later date after which DCI staff will have conversations based on survey results.
Normally, businesses would have to pay DCI for an evaluation like this to be conducted. However, once again, the USDA grant provides for business leaders to receive this evaluation for free.
DCI will then select three of the six communities to participate in Phase Two where they will receive more in-depth assistance directly tailored to their specific challenges and needs. At this point, Correll has not elaborated on what all the second phase will involve.
A third phase will involve only one business and will be extremely hands-on as a team of marketing experts will travel to the community and assist a specific business in the design and implementation of a digital marketing program geared toward attracting interest to the region.
Eads was selected to be one of the programs as a result of a grant application submitted by to DCI by Betsy Barnett, along with accompanying letters of support from community stakeholders, in February of this year.
Barnett had been in initial communication with DCI years ago when they assisted the theater in getting a digital projector. At that time, DCI was impressed with the efforts of the group associated with the CLCEC and identified Eads as a town with the energy, effort and community support to accomplish things other towns may not be able to accomplish.
In subsequent years, Barnett stayed in touch with DCI as she approached them with questions related to various projects the high school took on, including an Entrepreneurial class she began along with a flexible careers-based hour for Sophomores and Juniors.
Given the history, it should come as no surprise that, in turn, DCI reached out to Barnett (and Eads, at large) when they were applying for the grant from the USDA, inviting Barnett to apply on behalf of the town.
Barnett, who is complimentary of DCI staff and expertise, didn’t hesitate in responding. “This is a great opportunity for the county,” she states. “We have to do a much better job marketing ourselves. Right now, our business owners try to somewhat market, but they lack the expertise needed to be effective. Getting to work with someone who is knowledgeable and can solve our specific issues could be just the shot of energy we need to be able to generate more business and improve the community as a whole. I encourage businesses and community leaders and those who have technology and marketing skills to get involved with this opportunity!”
Once again, it seems that opportunity is, indeed, knocking on our door. Now, it’s only up to us to have the good sense (and to make the time) to open that door up and let that good news in.