State awards OCEDC $40,000 matching grant

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Warren Bluhm,

The Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. announced last week that the Oconto County Economic Development Corp. will receive $40,000 “to help develop or expand innovative programs aimed at advancing the climate for entrepreneurship.”

The matching grant — one of nine around the state totaling $500,000 — is being awarded as part of WEDC’s Entrepreneurship Support Program, which is now in its third year. The grants are designed to help fund activities that promote entrepreneurship or deliver education, training and other resources to assist new and aspiring business owners. More than 400 entrepreneurs are expected to receive services through a wide variety of initiatives.

“I’m not aware of any other communities that have received three consecutive awards from this grant program,” said Paul Ehrfurth, executive director of the OCEDC, on Friday.

The Oconto County private-public partnership has used the previous grants to promote and assist in new business formation and accelerate business growth in Oconto County, Ehrfurth said.

OCEDC hired consultant Economic Growth Advisors to investigate the feasibility of starting a business incubator in Oconto County. In talking with stakeholders, however, that did not surface as a priority, he said. What did surface was the need to assist entrepreneurs and cultivate relationships between businesses and educators — and the latter led to the Business and Education Alliance.

Ehrfurth and his team worked with WEDC and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop the Business Innovation Development Network, which has focused on assisting small businesses by engaging them on growth issues and problem areas.

Three years ago, Ehrfurth said he never would have believed that he’d be working with 40 small companies today. “It really has taken off,” he said. “And I’m meeting with them on multiple occasions. It’s not just a one-shot deal.”

The Business and Education Alliance, a coalition of business leaders and educators working together, has also come out of the conversations facilitated by the state grant, Ehrfurth said.

“We sort of have developed a rural economic development model. We’ve worked with microlending, the entrepreneurship assistance program, Leadership Oconto County — it all blends together to form a model that has worked here in Oconto County and I think could be applied in other areas as well,” he said.

Mark R. Hogan, secretary and CEO of WEDC, the state’s lead economic development organization, said the grants enable organizations like OCEDC to support local entrepreneurs.

“Through this program, we are supporting local and regional organizations that understand the unique needs of their communities and can provide key resources to foster a statewide culture that celebrates and encourages entrepreneurs to build successful businesses,” Hogan said.

WEDC received 22 applications for Entrepreneurship Support Grants, which are awarded on a competitive basis, and grant funds must be matched by the applicant. Projects supported by the new round of grant funding must take place in 2019.

Launched in 2016, the grant program has provided a total of $1.5 million in grants to 26 organizations statewide to help fund activities such as prototyping assistance, legal services and outreach to underserved entrepreneurs.