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Appalachian COG develops Entrepreneur Friendly Toolkit

Pickens, Simpsonville and Oconee County have served as the pilot communities for the Entrepreneur Friendly Toolkit developed by the Appalachian Council of Governments. The toolkit evolved from an idea generated by the Ten at the Top task force for economic and entrepreneurial vitality. Ten at the Top fosters a spirit of cooperation and collaboration among public, private and nonprofit leaders from across the ten-county Upstate region.

David Shellhorse, ACOG's economic development services manager and member of the Ten at the Top subcommittee, brought the idea of an online toolkit back to the COG. Embracing the idea, ACOG applied and received a grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission to develop the toolkit and make it available to local governments in ACOG's six-county region. "Entrepreneurship and business development is a key area of interest for the Regional Commission," explained Shellhorse.  

Upon its release this spring, the toolkit will be similar to the Small Business Administration's online "Build Your Business Plan" tool. Communities will use the toolkit to develop their own Entrepreneur Friendly Action Plan for becoming more business friendly.  

Using a series of questions and required tasks, the toolkit guides users as they input required information in seven areas, such as market research and business planning, business capital, regulatory and legal compliance, and marketing to and promoting entrepreneurs.  

"While the steps of the online toolkit are easy to understand, it takes hard work and time to pull together the required information," explained Shellhorse. "The key is appointing a task force that is ready to work and is committed to making it work."  

In addition to the action plans, the toolkit provides guidance on developing a custom, local business assistance guide, a local six-to-nine month recommended business start-up timeline and a local/regional capital matrix explaining available funding sources. Communities also receive guidance on hosting an annual small business resource fair and creating small business web content.  

"You have all these deliverables, but more importantly you have a platform to take the community's economic development effort to the next level," explained Shellhorse.

"That could take the form of creating a downtown master plan, joining the Main Street South Carolina program, adding a local economic development position to staff, establishing design overlay districts, developing incentive programs or undertaking a local incubator initiative."

 According to Shellhorse, Pickens is a model for other communities and has set the bar very high. "They are doing all the right things by engaging potential and existing small businesses in every possible way they can and aggressively promoting downtown through its Main Street program," he commented.

The Pickens Revitalization Association, funded in part by the City of Pickens and a member of the Municipal Association's Main Street SC program, took the lead on the initiative and created an entrepreneur-friendly task force to work on the project.

 "We were thrilled to be a part of this pilot program, as it helped us develop tools and resources for our local businesses to grow and thrive here in Pickens," said Allison Fowler, executive director of the Pickens Revitalization Association.

 "By design, the process allowed us to organize a plan for supporting and attracting local entrepreneurs and small businesses," Fowler said. "Since completing the program, all of the information we accumulated during the process has been organized on the City of Pickens website for easy access."

Pickens released its small business resource guide in May 2014. To date, officials have used it to recruit 18 new businesses with a half dozen more in the pipeline. The guide is a one-stop shop for essential business planning and compliance information, such as planning/zoning/signage regulations and business license requirements.  

Pickens Business Assistance Guide 

Pickens" involvement in the pilot program also included a resource fair. Attendees received copies of the business assistance guide plus they visited area resources such as the Small Business Development Center, and local bankers, insurance agents and lawyers. The resource fair also offered presentations, such as how to compete with big box stores, and provided networking opportunities for the attendees.

Pickens officials felt the event was very successful. It allowed business owners to gain insight from multiple sources at one time and make connections with other professionals to assist in their ventures. Pickens plans to make it an annual event.

Appalachian COG recently began working with Simpsonville as the final pilot for the toolkit. "They are doing a good job with the survey of existing small business and are preparing a very dynamic small business guide," said Shellhorse. The local chamber is heading up the Simpsonville initiative. 

"Upon the program's release during the second quarter of 2015, the Entrepreneur Friendly Toolkit will be available to local governments within the Appalachian COG's territory," concluded Shellhorse. "We hope at a later date, we can offer it to entities outside our region." 

The Pickens Revitalization Association won a 2015 Main Street South Carolina Inspiration Award for its small business resource guide.