Center helps a rural Kansas town

8:43:46 AM CDT - Thursday, March 11, 2004

By Amy Geiszler-Jones

Like many rural American towns, Phillipsburg, Kan., has seen its population and businesses dwindle.

The town of about 2,600, located in northwest Kansas about 20 miles from the Nebraska border, has been losing the equivalent of a family of five every month for 20 years.

But Phillipsburg native Sally Brandon, who will open a second business there later this month, thinks things may change, in small part because of classes being offered by WSU's Center for Entrepreneurship.

The WSU center has teamed up with the Solomon Valley Regional Learning Center in Phillipsburg to offer classes to stimulate new and to grow existing businesses. Terry Noel, assistant professor, taught the first class, on developing business plans, last fall. Center director Don Hackett is currently teaching the class "Growing Your Business."

"The new business possibilities that I saw come out of that business plan class give me some hope for Phillipsburg," says Brandon, a class participant whose new business, The Shepherd's Mill, will employ four people. The Shepherd's Mill will offer custom processing of the wool from sheep, alpaca, llama and other fiber-producing animals.

Jeff Hofaker, director of Phillips County Economic Development Inc., sees similar promise. "Out of the 11 students that took the business planning class … six were viable businesses, and one, Sally's, is financed and running," he says.

In early 2002, the PCED board started looking at ways to stimulate entrepreneurial growth in the region.

"The basic premise started as creating some type of center to be the catalyst for bringing in education and offering added incentives for developing businesses in a rural setting," says Hofaker.

Noel, the WSU faculty member, sees these kinds of entrepreneurship classes as critical for  breathing life into small towns.

"There's a world of smart people out there and all they need is a few tools in their tool kit," says Noel.

Hofaker agrees. "Rural businesses can be created if appropriate training and education is given to guide entrepreneurs."

Through the Phillips County Development and Community Foundation, a grant funded from the Dane G. Hansen Foundation and commitments by mentoring businesses, the PCED opened the Solomon Valley Regional Learning Center less than a year ago to focus on entrepreneur development.

Many rural towns are looking to stimulate their economic development efforts. Brandon, for example, says Holdredge, Neb., economic officials asked her and her husband to base The Shepherd's Mill there, but the couple wanted to stay in their home area.

While Brandon had already developed a business plan for The Shepherd's Mill with some help from the Small Business Development Center in Hays, she still enrolled in Noel's class last fall to put the finishing touches on her plan.

 "It was a great opportunity to put the polish on and to get some one-on-one help," says Brandon, who co-owns another Phillipsburg business that sells looms, yarns and spinning fibers.

Brandon says the class paid off. Bankers told her and Hofaker her business plan made the difference in getting the financing for her unique business approved.

Although more than 250 miles separate Phillipsburg from Wichita, Hofaker says the PCED asked WSU to offer the classes because its Center for Entrepreneurship is nationally recognized and it is the only center in the state with an established curriculum in entrepreneurship.

The WSU center agreed to help out since its "mission is to encourage entrepreneurship activity," Hackett  says. "As a center we try to be responsive to folks who want learning.

"We've also had feelers from other communities," says Hackett. "This is something that several communities in Kansas are facing. There's a need for this kind of thing."

The Legislature is currently looking to create a Kansas Center for Entrepreneurship to beef up economic development in the state. The center would be a resource center for new business owners, and a state fund would help provide startup cash for the entrepreneurs.

Technology has allowed the Phillipsburg/WSU partnership to work. The classes met in Phillipsburg with the WSU instructors for a few times, and then interactive television was used, as well.

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