Boost for business

Rusk County Farm Supply in Ladysmith recently improved its exterior with a facade loan. It also was among 3,400 small businesses and non-profit organizations in the state to receive a $10,000 grant through the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation to assist with helping fill vacant storefronts. 

A state program launched to help businesses through the coronavirus pandemic is not only helping renovate a vacant building in Ladysmith, but also breathing new life into the city’s downtown.

Rusk County Farm Supply is one of thousands of recipients statewide of $10,000  Main Street Bounceback Grants, a program administered through the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation. The Main Street Bounceback grant program has now helped fill vacant storefronts in all 72 counties and has helped more than 3,400 small businesses and nonprofit organizations across the state. 

The grants are helping small businesses move into vacant storefronts.

“The WEDC Mainstreet Bounceback grant gave us the opportunity to expand our office space, while revitalizing a worn and tired looking building right in the heart of downtown Ladysmith,” said Jesse Spooner, general manager at Rusk County Farm Supply.

In April 2021, Gov. Evers announced the state would dedicate $50 million toward helping small business owners open physical locations and communities fill vacant storefronts. An analysis from November 2021 showed that as a share of federal pandemic aid the state has received and directed by Gov. Evers, Wisconsin ranked second in the country for aid directed to economic development, and first in the country in aid allocated to businesses

“I’m proud we’ve been a national leader in our work to invest in small businesses and ensure our main streets and our communities rebound and recover,” said Gov. Evers. “Small businesses are an essential part of our state and local economies. This program is about making sure we’re investing in our long-term economic success by helping entrepreneurs and new business owners achieve their business dreams while revitalizing main streets in every corner of our state, creating jobs, gathering places, and new opportunities for communities.”

Earlier this month, Gov. Evers, Secretary and WEDC CEO Missy Hughes celebrated the success of the Main Street Bounceback grants during a visit Thursday to northern Wisconsin businesses. Every county in Wisconsin has benefitted from Main Street Bounceback grants.

“The businesses and organizations that have received these grants are all different—everything from restaurants and barbershops to mental health providers and chambers of commerce,” said Secretary and CEO Hughes. “The one thing they all have in common is that they are investing in making their communities a better place,” Hughes said.

Funds for the Main Street Bounceback Grant Program are provided by the federal American Rescue Plan Act and have made a difference to business districts around the state from Rusk County in the north to Crawford County in the south. 

Ladysmith, a city of about 3,200 people with a proud logging heritage, has received eight Main Street Bounceback grants so far. Neighboring Bruce, a community billed as the Gateway to the Blue Hills, has received two of these grants. With a New Auburn mailing address, but still within Rusk County on beautiful Clear Lake is another business receiving a grant.

Barron County has 69 grant recipients, helping businesses in Barron, Barronett, Cameron, Chetek, Cumberland, Rice Lake, Turtle Lake

Chippewa County has 60 grant recipients, helping businesses in Bloomer, Boyd, Chippewa Falls, Cadott, Cornell, Eau Claire, Holcombe, New Auburn and Stanley.

Price County has 12 grant recipients, helping businesses in Catawba, Park Falls, Phillips and Prentice.

Rusk County has 11 grant recipients helping businesses in Bruce, Ladysmith and New Auburn.

Sawyer County has 19 grant recipients, helping businesses in Birchwood, Hayward and Winter.

The Bounceback grants have been beneficial and offered a good incentive for new or growing businesses that have moved into additional commercial space, according to Rusk County Coordinator Andy Albarado.

“The grants were very unique compared to other programs from the standpoint of being relatively easy to obtain with minimal paperwork involved. I believe the purpose was to help stimulate business start-ups and expansions and the $10,000 grants did help do that,” Albarado said. 

Albarado called the funds “additional equity” that helped new ventures.

“I can’t say if the grant was ever the deciding factor for any of the businesses that acquired or leased space, but I think in many cases it provided the business with some additional equity as they started out,” Albarado said.

He noted the impact of these dollars on local economies as they recover from the coronavirus pandemic.

“I think any program that helps businesses take on the risk of starting or expanding benefits the local community, especially coming out of the pandemic. There is already a certain amount of uncertainty when a business starts or expand, but in particular with the current difficulties with supply chains, workforce and inflation, any opportunity a business has to mitigate their risk is beneficial.”

One of the first challenges Chippewa County communities faced post-pandemic was the devastation it caused for smaller retail businesses, according to Danielle Bauer with the Chippewa County Economic Development Corporation. Much of the effort focused on marketing the funding opportunities available, she added.

“Marketing the programs that are aimed to help these businesses presented several challenges,” Bauer said. “CEDC utilized aggressive social media marketing and outreach to banks, while simultaneously informing vacant space property owners on the availability of this particular funding program. As everyone knows, if no one gets informed about a program, it will not be utilized.”

“The importance of encouraging entrepreneurship cannot be overstated as an essential part of our organization’s economic development strategy. Entrepreneurs and small businesses make up the majority of job creators in any community,” Bauer said.

Chippewa County is rapidly approaching 70 local entrepreneurs that have utilized the program to start or grow their business into these open spaces, according to CEDC Board Chairman Tom Waldusky.

“The credit has to go to everyone working together to get the word out and to process the applications rapidly,” Waldusky said.

Federal stimulus funds have made the grants possible. Business applications in Wisconsin reached record levels during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The grant program gives people more chances to shop local and support their communities,” WEDC Secretary Missy Hughes said.

Taylor County has 19 grant recipients, helping businesses in Medford, Rib Lake, Sheldon and Stetsonville.

In Medford, which has seen 16 vacant storefronts filled by this program, Gov. Evers visited Pouring Cats & Dogs, a pet boutique that opened in a previously vacant space. “Without the grant I wouldn’t have been able to update my equipment, my computers, get as much inventory as I have in here, to be able to grow as fast as I have,” said Natalia Schmitt, the owner of Pouring Cats & Dogs in Medford.

“We had so many open opportunities, vacant locations,” said Melissa Martinez, director of the Washburn Area Chamber of Commerce. “It helped us fill in a lot of gaps that have been sitting there empty for years and it’s really allowed some existing businesses to expand, opening up some smaller spaces for more Main Street Bounceback grants.”

“The economic impact of those dollars is gigantic for our small, rural county,” said Carol Roth, the executive director of Driftless Development Inc. which is the economic development organization for Crawford County. “To large companies, $10,000 may not be as significant, however to these small businesses it’s so important. It also lets these business owners know that someone is supporting them.” 

“For your small mom-and-pop business that’s on Main Street, it’s huge.” Roth said.

The Bounceback program has really helped entrepreneurs in Chippewa County relaunch their businesses, purchase needed equipment and remodel their space for future growth, according to CEDC President/CEO Charlie Walker.

“As the Main Street Bounceback program slowly wraps up, funds are still available. The current issue that many communities in Chippewa County are facing is the lack of building inventory or available spaces that fit our entrepreneurs’ needs,” Walker said.

WEDC is working with nine regional economic development organizations to quickly disburse grant funding to eligible businesses and nonprofit organizations. More information about the Main Street Bounceback Grant Program and how to apply is available on the WEDC website here. The program is scheduled to run through June 30, 2022. 

Evers says the program is helping local economies recover by supporting small businesses and bringing a boost to already established businesses in downtowns.

“We want to make sure we not only recover but that we actually end up better than we did before we had that pandemic,” said Evers.

Democratic Governors Association Senior Communications Advisor Christina Amestoy praised Evers for having “a strong record of supporting small businesses.”

“The Main Street Bounceback Grants program is helping Wisconsin grow back even stronger by empowering small businesses and making long-term investments in local economies,” Amestoy said.

Chris Walloch, executive director of A Better Wisconsin Together, a state-based research and communications hub for progressives, said Wisconsin ranks first in the country in aid allocated to businesses with small businesses and families in the state benefitting from more than $4 billion in federal funding.

“That funding helped more than 100,000 small business owners in Wisconsin were able to keep their doors open through the pandemic, and 3,000 were able to open new storefronts,” Walloch said. “Wisconsinites value our local small businesses. We can also agree that the local mom and pop shops lining our Main Streets - and serving as the backbone of so many communities - have been some of the hardest hit as the COVID-19 pandemic swept through our communities over the last two years.”

“This economic lifeline and the tenacity, perseverance, and dedication of so many local business owners is the underpinning of our state’s bounce back from the economic consequences of a global health pandemic,” Walloch said.

Rusk County Farm Supply also recently renovated its main headquarters through a facade loan program, which helped fund roofing, siding and other improvements to their downtown Ladysmith headquarters.

Spooner spoke highly of the grant opportunities available to help business owners take risks they might not otherwise take and small businesses thrive.

“One never knows what you are going to get in a building that has been not been heated in years,” Spooner said. 

Rusk County Farm Supply leaders used the grant funds for a new heating and cooling system and to fix plumbing issues in the building.  They also have plans to revamp the façade and add a mural to the east side of the building. The business is also expanding with a new fertilizer plant in the Ladysmith Industrial Park.

“We are excited to be more of a part of downtown Ladysmith and the community as we grow,” Spooner said.

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