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MAIN STREET LONG PRAIRIE: Providing pathways for entrepreneurs and knocking down barriers is crucial to supporting the local economy.

Reinvent & Renew

Central Minnesota team partners with Federal Reserve to explore strategies to expand support, services for historically underserved entrepreneurs

By Andy Steiner
Photography by John Linn and Paul Middlestaedt

When COVID-19 hit Central Minnesota, it shook everyone in the region and exposed some raw truths: Low-income people and communities of color were particularly vulnerable, experiencing higher rates of infection and death, children who struggled to thrive in online school, significant job loss and small business setbacks and closures.

With a focus on shoring up and supporting community members—during these unprecedented times and beyond—staff at the St. Cloud-based nonprofit Central Minnesota Community Empowerment Organization (CMCEO) shifted into high gear, developing programs to support immigrants and refugees in a range of areas: applying for rental assistance, running summer programs to help children catch up on schoolwork, and showing local business owners how to apply for COVID-19 grant and loan programs.

“We have become a full-fledged resource for the community,” said Shirwa Adan, executive director for CMCEO, “so when COVID hit, we knew we had to be involved because we didn’t want to lose all the progress we’d made.”

CMCEO is a founding partner in the Initiative Foundation’s Enterprise Academy, an entrepreneurial bridge-building program that provides 12 weeks of small business training, technical assistance and potential access to financing for underserved entrepreneurs, including people of color and lower-income individuals. This summer, Adan was excited to learn of ways his organization could build even more community bridges.

Along with representatives from a range of local nonprofits, higher education, businesses and economic development experts, Adan was invited by the Initiative Foundation to participate in Reinventing Our Communities, a 10-month program created and administered by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia. The Central Minnesota cohort, in partnership with the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, is exploring strategies to sustain and grow the Enterprise Academy and the businesses it serves.

“The Initiative Foundation was really excited by this partnership, so we were, too,” Adan said. “We knew we wanted to be involved in this effort to explore how we can reinvent our communities in a culturally sensitive and equitable way.”

A NEW PARTNERSHIP
Initiative Foundation President Matt Varilek said alignment with the Reinventing Our Communities program was evident based on the Foundation’s history of programs that work to expand opportunity.

“We saw immediate parallels between the ambitions of our programs and the purpose of the Reinventing Our Communities initiative,” Varilek said. “We’re excited about the opportunity to connect our Central Minnesota economic development work with other communities across the country that are participating in this unique initiative led by the Federal Reserve. We’re also eager to partner locally with the talented people right down the road at the Minneapolis Fed.”

Reinventing Our Communities is focused on supporting and expanding the key pillars of successful entrepreneurship—training, technical assistance and lending—and examining the deeper barriers underserved communities face in accessing critical support systems. The end goal is to address gaps in the network of services available to aspiring small business owners and to build a stronger economy for all Central Minnesotans.

Michou Kokodoko, project director in the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis’ Community Development and Engagement Department, said the strong connections and trust the Initiative Foundation has built across the region make it a great fit for this program.

“We felt that through programs like the Enterprise Academy, the Initiative Foundation and the partners they have been training have built strong connections with entrepreneurs of color,” Kokodoko said. “They are reaching out to these communities already” and making a difference.

CHANGE-MAKERS
Lifting up businesses and knocking down barriers is crucial to supporting the local economy, said Luan Thomas-Brunkhorst, director of the Long Prairie Chamber of Commerce and an Initiative Foundation partner in the Reinventing Our Communities cohort. In Long Prairie, and in many other small Central Minnesota towns, the immigrant population has become a hub of business activity.

Thomas-Brunkhorst said two long-vacant downtown buildings recently were purchased by Latino business owners, bringing growth and new economic activity to Central Avenue, where 10 main street businesses are owned by Latino residents.

“Entrepreneurs with gumption and who are willing take a chance and start a business in Long Prairie are necessary for our local economy and the revitalization of Central Avenue,” Thomas-Brunkhorst said. “We want to make everyone who comes to Long Prairie feel welcome. We want people to stay and to feel connected.”

One way Long Prairie leaders are solidifying that connection is through the establishment of Welcoming Advocates, Valuing Everyone (WAVE). Supported by grants from the Initiative Foundation and University of Minnesota Extension, WAVE is a one-stop center using space at the public library where community residents can glean multi-lingual information about job opportunities, housing, child care and more. The Latino Economic Development Center (LEDC) will also have a presence to support new business owners. “We’re making progress,” she said. “It’s going to take years, of course, but we see this as a way to hopefully build new relationships and create more unity in our community.”

Both Thomas-Brunkhorst and Adan say their participation in Reinventing Our Communities has been an enriching experience. They’re expanding their networks and gaining new connections. They’re hearing from community members and entrepreneurs about their goals and challenges, and they’re gathering perspectives from national experts.

Adan believes members of the Central Minnesota cohort are prepared to pour their energy into the Reinventing Our Communities initiative and match the effort put forth by the entrepreneurs they serve. “We are focused on building better communities that reflect all the faces of America,” he said, “and that’s a big job.”

*Additional reporting provided by Bob McClintick, Initiative Foundation marketing and communications director.

Cohort partners represent the following Central Minnesota organizations and institutions:

  • Central Minnesota Community Empowerment Organization 
  • Greater St. Cloud Development Corporation Higher Works Collaborative
  • Latino Economic Development Center
  • Long Prairie Chamber of Commerce
  • Mille Lacs Corporate Ventures
  • St. Cloud State University
  • U.S. Bank

A FOCUS ON THREE COMMUNITIES

The Initiative Foundation and its Reinventing Our Communities partners are focused on unique challenges for small businesses in three communities: the St. Cloud metropolitan statistical area, the Mille Lacs Tribal Economy, and Latino populations in Todd and Stearns counties.

Project Goals

  • Support and access: Build the capacity of organizations to support and accelerate the success of underserved entrepreneurs in their respective communities. 
  • Build relationships: Enhance learning and strengthen collaboration across the three communities served. 

  • Systems change: Expand partnerships to focus on unique opportunities and on-the-ground resources that help address each community’s distinct challenges.


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