The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

March 14, 2013

Economic gardening opportunity open to local firms

By CARL E. FEATHER - cfeather@starbeacon.com
Star Beacon

JEFFERSON — Innovative businesses that meet certain criteria may be eligible for free assistance with marketing, search-engine optimization and other services that can take them to the next level of sales and job-creation.

Benjamin T. Kenny, development coordinator for WSOS Community Action Commission, of Fremont, met with commissioners and local economic and tourism development directors on Tuesday to outline the “economic gardening” concept, which uses a “grow from within” strategy for economic development.

“It’s taking care of the businesses in your own back yard,” Kenny said.

Ashtabula County is one of 14 Ohio counties included in a rural development grant awarded to WSOS by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  Kenny said the economic gardening grant targets “stage II” companies, that is businesses with 10 to 50 employees and annual sales of less than $1 million. For manufacturing firms, the second criteria is an annual profit of less than $1 million.

Kenny said up to $4,000 in customized market research is available to stage II companies that meet these criteria, demonstrate innovation and whose leadership is genuinely interested in growing the business to the next stage.

“We’re really looking for ones that are innovative; the way they make their profit is because they have a niche. We’re always looking for the next innovative company,” Kenny said.

The program is a pilot for Ohio; Kenny said the grant will allow up to 20 businesses in the 14 counties to access the service. The service will be provided on a “first-come, first serve” basis, but Kenny said the commission wants to make sure at least one business in each of the 14 counties receives assistance.

The WSOS Community Action Commission will do an initial screening of business owners interested in participation; application to the program is made online. Once the business is selected, the CEO and a team of experts hold a 90-minute conference call to gather information about the company.

“At the end of that phone call, there is usually some kind of idea and interest in what the team can help with,” he said.

Kenny said the process is fairly quick — within three weeks or so of the initial interview, independent consultants begin posting their reports on a secure website.

“They really get specific to that business’ product,” Kenny said. “They really bring out all kinds of specific information for that company.”

The Edward Lowe Foundation pays the consultants, who provide market data that can help the CEO decide what product lines have the best potential for growth, locate new markets and optimize their website for search engines. The consultants work with a range of businesses, from tourism to manufacturing.

Brian Anderson, executive director of Growth Partnership for Ashtabula County, suggested the Aloterra Energy, which has about 5,000 acres of Miscanthus biofuel grass planted in the county, as a company that could benefit from the service. Geneva City Manager James Pearson and Jennifer Brown, secretary of the Pairings board of trustees, attended the meeting and inquired about the possibility of a non-profit such as Pairings being selected for the service. Kenny said he was uncertain if the program could be extended to non-profits, but promised to investigate.

CEOs with an interest in the program can get more information from Anderson at Growth Partnership or by sending an email to btkenny@wsos.org.

Online: wsow.org; edward lowe.org/tools-programs/ economic-gardening/