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New incentive for new business on St. Helens 'Main Street'

Business Plan Competition offering $25K in grant, loan to would-be entrepreneurs

Photo Credit: MARK MILLER - The Houlton district of St. Helens, looking east along Columbia Boulevard at the intersection of North 21st Street. Houlton has historically been a commercial area, but while many businesses continue to thrive in the neighborhood, there are a number of vacant storefronts and available retail space.The St. Helens Economic Development Corp. and a group of sponsors are hoping to revitalize the commercial heart of St. Helens with a competition offering $25,000 to whomever presents the best plan to open a new business there.

The Business Plan Competition, announced Monday, Sept. 15, is open to any person who submits a written plan to open a business in the Houlton or Old Town districts of St. Helens. The winner will receive a $5,000 grant from SHEDCO and a $20,000 zero-interest loan to help bring their business plans to fruition.

The competition is the brainchild of Robert Blumberg, president and chief executive officer of Wauna Federal Credit Union — one of three credit unions that have signed on as sponsors.

Blumberg said he got the idea from a similar competition in Wisconsin. The Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Contest has been held every year since 2004, disbursing about $1.7 million in cash and in-kind prizes to date, according to its website.

“We kind of fashioned our business plan competition after that one,” Blumberg said.

The competition opens Oct. 8. From that date, entrants will have until March 31, 2015, to submit their business plans. They must also attend a workshop outlining criteria and parameters of the contest before applying.

Workshop sessions are scheduled from 5:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. for Oct. 8, Oct. 15, Nov. 5 and Nov. 12 in the Oregon State University Extension Service office at 505 N. Columbia River Hwy., St. Helens. Another session may be held sometime in January.

SHEDCO, a business-oriented group that works to promote economic growth in St. Helens, has taken the lead on organizing the competition.

Liz Esposito, who became SHEDCO’s Main Street coordinator this month, said most of its support has come from the private sector so far, although it is also sponsored by the Columbia River People’s Utility District, the Columbia County Economic Team and the Port of St. Helens.

Natasha Parvey, a businesswoman working with SHEDCO, is credited for taking the lead on the competition.

“I think it’s really exciting to have this little program happening in ‘Main Street,’ St. Helens,” said Parvey, using a term that refers not to any one street in St. Helens, but to the business corridor from Highway 30 east to Old Town, through the Houlton district.

Asked what the credit unions stand to gain from sponsoring the contest, Blumberg said, “It’s a long-term benefit. If the economy picks up ... it’s going to bring more business to the area. It’s going to generate economic activity that will benefit all of the financial institutions.”

He added, “Everybody benefits. The community benefits. The business community benefits. The financial institutions benefit. The city benefits.”

Esposito indicated she wants to see a broad spectrum of applicants.

“We’re encouraging new and existing businesses to apply, even if they’re not from St. Helens or they have a business that isn’t open in St. Helens right now,” Esposito said. “The more applicants, the better.”

Esposito told the St. Helens City Council on Wednesday that SHEDCO is still seeking an $1,800 sponsorship to go toward the “grand prize” in the contest.

“We were hoping that the council could find some funding as well to help contribute to this prize,” Esposito said.

Mayor Randy Peterson responded, “Let’s have a little time to talk about it, to see if we can find some money.”

It is Blumberg’s hope that, like the Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Contest, the competition in St. Helens will be successful enough to become a recurring event.

“I hope that we can award the prize to a business that’s going to thrive in the community, and we get the money back and we can roll it into another business plan competition,” said Blumberg. “Ultimately, if we can keep on doing this every year, we can be providing some economic activity to the city of St. Helens.”

There will be an orientation session for the competition on Monday, Oct. 6, at 6:30 p.m. in the council chambers at St. Helens City Hall. The session will be led by SHEDCO members. People interested in registering for the orientation can contact Parvey at natashaparvey@gmail.com.

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