Using small businesses to boost the health of your community


Economic Development Director
Town of Elkin, N.C.
Phone: (336) 794-6468



Tell us about the “STEP for Small Business” program.
The North Carolina Rural Center started a “STEP for Small Business” program, and we’re one of the first seven towns to go through the program. Its goal is to increase our small business support capacity, so instead of it traditionally being one town employee or one small business center employee going out to support your local businesses, we now have a core team that keeps the program growing.

And then we have 25 or so different business leaders that go out and help us visit businesses and find out what support they need. It’s not just me going out, who maybe they see often – it’s another local business leader going out to ask how we can help them.

How long have you been doing the program?
The Rural Center came to us about 18 months ago, and they helped us do a lot of the background work to educate and train those business leaders. As much as they are great business leaders and they know what they are doing, they also needed to know the challenges that we’re having in the town, of why we have empty buildings. Instead of them perceiving, “We have a bunch of empty buildings, why aren’t we filling them?” they understood the challenges that went with the background of that building, and then understood what we needed to help on that side of things as well as help the businesses.

All of that was that 18-month lead up, was a lot of that sort of background training for those business leaders. Now they’re actively going out with them and visiting businesses. Each month that we meet, we add another 10 or so businesses that we go out and visit. They normally go out in groups of two, and we just keep adding until we see everybody.

They are volunteers, they are business leaders within the town of Elkin. It’s not just somebody that’s paid to do this, it’s somebody volunteering to see a fellow businessperson be successful, and that’s done a lot for the program in adding credibility to it. It’s not just the town saying, “you know, we need to support businesses,” it’s the community coming in to do that.

Each of the businesses we visit become ambassadors for the town as well, saying, “You know, it’s a great place to start a business – not only is the town helping us out, but other business leaders are here to help us too.” It’s been wonderful in terms of that small business morale and vibe that’s happening in Elkin now. The small businesses [feels like the town care about them] – and not only the town, the other businesses too. It’s completely a noncompetitive environment. If that business succeeds then the other business succeeds.

How did you get the business people to volunteer for the program?
The first group that we approached were people that traditionally had been involved in the community or that we knew, if they hadn’t been involved in the community, because it was related to business, would be something they’d want to be part of.

We did go out and select a few people, but as it’s gone along, people have heard about it and say, “You know, I want to be a part of that, that sounds like something I can really—I can be effective. Instead of just going to a meeting and talking about something I want to go out and be one of those people to help another business.

What percent of your time is devoted to this?
We meet monthly. Each week I try to touch the program, meaning touch the volunteers to say, “Have you visited that business? Is there anything we can do to help?” In some ways it just keeps evolving on its own. I don’t have to babysit the program, but you do have to keep it alive by keeping your volunteers engaged.

We can read the temperature of everybody and know, “OK, everybody’s wanting a new challenge,” so we’ll introduce—like we just rolled in a whole group of mentors. We’re small business people going out to say, “How can we support you?” but we didn’t have a mentor group in Elkin. We just started that so that took more time. But in some ways it kind of runs itself, and that’s what we wanted. It’s not falling all on my shoulders or the town’s shoulders—everybody else is doing their part.

Are there any positive mileposts that show a difference made over the last 18 months?
Already I’ve said, “Today, you started a business,” when a new business opened. This group has a micro-loan program as part of it as well, and we were able to loan funds to a food truck that otherwise couldn’t find financing. This group has already opened a business and we’ve only just rolled it out, so they can already pat themselves on the back that they’ve started a business in our community.

We’ve visited a lot of different businesses to the point now where we are looking at, “Do we look at visiting businesses outside of Elkin, and trying to encourage them to come in to the Elkin city limits?” Our team has said our metric to our success is how many businesses we have actually gone out to touch. It may not be that we loaned them money, it may not be that they’re engaged directly with a small business center. We’ve gone out to support them, they know that we’re there. That’s the metric that they’re most concerned about, and I think each one of those will lead to other relationships of business support.

Is there an example of something you found out that a business wanted that you wouldn’t have known if not for this program?
It hasn’t been kind of narrowed down to an exact “This is the one that needs to change,” but in terms of being more business friendly and ordinances and things that might be in place that are inhibiting business growth, that’s something that I can very much take back to the people I work with in town and our commissioners. I can say, “Look, our small business people are saying this. Is there any way that we can change that?” They have already looked at ordinances that don’t encourage business growth the way we would like it to, and rewriting those and implementing new ones. That we would not have known about. Maybe they wouldn’t have wanted to tell a town employee that but they’ll tell a fellow business leader, so we have found out some things that we normally wouldn’t have found out, and we were able to change them.

What do you wish small town mayors or town managers know that they don’t know?
In Elkin, we’re blessed, our mayor and town manager are very much involved, so it’s not so much a challenge. They’re not removed—they’re out there every day like I am, wondering how we can help. But I’d say there is a big shift right now in terms of economic development, of commissioners and mayors not just saying, “We’re going to go after that big manufacturing firm.” We want to do that, but I think they’re also realizing if traditionally they said, “Downtown is great, we want to support downtown, but that only employs one person per retail business, a manufacturer would employ 200,” they’re really getting to understand a downtown is the checkpoint of the health of your town. If your downtown is healthy, that should be a good place to bring your business to.

They’re realizing downtown and those businesses down there are just as important as the manufacturers, that the two go hand and hand, that if you are wanting to attract a manufacturer, you do want your downtown to be a vibrant, active, fun place. If it wasn’t, it probably would be hard to attract your work force. That I think is really what’s changing with mayors and town managers that I’ve talked to in the realm of what I do. There’s a big shift of that mutual support, that manufacturing isn’t more important than another element of economic development.