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By Sr. Christine Martin, OSF, board member and leader in the formation and continued growth of the Northwest Missouri Enterprise Facilitation organization

Building sustainability in a rural community has been challenging for years, but in the present economic downturn, some might conclude it is virtually impossible. Not Northwest Missouri Enterprise Facilitation, a small nonprofit organization which is having a major impact in six counties in Northwest Missouri.  “By harnessing the passion, determination, intelligence, and resourcefulness of the local people in our rural area, we are making a real difference in our communities,” says Annette Weeks, Enterprise Facilitator.

Northwest Missouri Enterprise Facilitation (NWMEF) was launched in 2006 in the six most northwestern counties in Missouri where local economies have declined over the past ten years: Andrew, Atchison, Gentry, Holt, Nodaway and Worth Counties. The program’s purpose is to promote economic and community revitalization by capturing the passion and interest of local entrepreneurs using an innovative grass roots approach to economic development, Enterprise Facilitation™, developed by economist, Dr. Ernesto Sirolli. Northwest Missouri Enterprise Facilitation is controlled and managed at the grassroots level by a local Facilitation Board comprised of over fifty civic leaders, community professionals, and other representatives of the rural community.  The model promotes and teaches team building that helps create practical and successful businesses.  This free and confidential service assesses personal commitment to a business idea. It helps take that idea from a passionate dream to practical reality through proper management and personal guidance, but without advising or instructing. Each entrepreneur takes ownership and responsibility for all decisions and determines the progress and implementation of his/her business concept. In assisting struggling businesses and encouraging local expansion and retention of businesses, NWMEF trusts each entrepreneur’s own internal motivation and creates a “ripple effect” of excitement about the possibilities for local entrepreneurship in rural communities.

“I started to explore the possibilities of owning my own dance center, “ Andrew County entrepreneur Mary Ingersoll says, “When the previous dance studio closed in the current location, I knew I had to act quickly before those clients scattered and found a new place.” Inspirations Dance Center, LLC offers classes in tumbling, jazz, poms, hip-hop, ballet and tap. Ingersoll currently has over 100 students enrolled and employs three part-time teachers, including herself, and one part-time administrator. The role of NWMEF was to help Ingersoll find the resources she needed to accomplish her business dream. “Facilitator Annette Weeks was very supportive and positive, she was a solution finder,” said Ingersoll.

Solutions and connections to resources are provided through the Enterprise Facilitation Board members. The Enterprise Facilitator appeals to these “good neighbors” to locate the help each entrepreneur needs for success.

“Most new businesses need a product, a marketing plan and a financial management plan. Most people have a pretty good working knowledge about two of the three areas,” says NWMEF Board Chairman Jim Jacoby, “What our nonprofit does is identify the weaker element and provide a support system. When our Facilitator encounters a problem, she can take it to the board, which has a lot of experience in problem-solving and finding resources.”

The NWMEF Board members realize that the creation of small businesses in the region has a significant impact on the lives of individual clients, on other potential entrepreneurs in the area, and on the community at large. They know first-hand that additional businesses and jobs signal a real change in the economic situation of small rural communities. They have witnessed struggling families and individuals what have been able to improve their circumstances through the entrepreneurial effort of establishing a home business, often a second business. For others living in poverty, they see increased opportunity of employment.

Rural America is suffering from the full effects of the global economic downturn. Rural economy is now losing jobs at a faster rate than the rest of the nation, according to a study from the University of Missouri Rural Policy Research Institute (RUPRI). Missouri’s non-metro job losses are running higher than the U.S. average at 3 percent. Statistics gathered by RUPRI show that as of last February, Missouri’s 79 non-metro counties are losing jobs at an annual rate of close to 4 percent.

Information from the HUD FY 2009 Section 8 Income Limits Documentation System for the median family income level of these six counties in Northwest Missouri clearly indicates that the Northwest Missouri area generally lags behind the economy of the state of Missouri as a whole. The 2009 Median family income in Missouri was reported as $58,300. The average reported median income of the six counties: Andrew, Atchison, Gentry, Holt, Nodaway and Worth is $48,383. In fact, not one of these six counties meets the Missouri median family income level as reported in the HUD FY 2009 Section 8.

The Enterprise Facilitation approach has been exceedingly successful in creating businesses and jobs that remain in the community and have a higher degree of success than traditional economic development programs. The unique service this nonprofit offers is the large grass roots resource board of referral for small business clients connected to an Enterprise Facilitator whose only expectation is to work one on one with each client and network with the board and existing infrastructure. Enterprise Facilitation looks to the unique needs of individuals within a community before it looks to a predetermined service or a program. The NWMEF board believes that rural communities should think about the distinct economic assets on which they can build a sustainable economic future. They understand that the kind of “smokestack-chasing” mentality that many communities have relied on over the last several decades is not the key to a sustainable healthy rural community.

Sr. Kathleen Reichert, OSF, NWMEF Board Development Chair, says, “Communities now should be asking themselves, ‘What can we do best in a global economy? Recognizing ourselves as neighbors in the wide region of our six counties, acknowledging our common strengths and weaknesses, and reaching out to give a hand to those who are struggling is the ‘barn raising’ mindset we have reclaimed.”

“People do find it challenging especially in today’s economy,” said Annette Weeks. “They have a passion for something and they have great ideas, but they haven’t found a support system to help them with this, and that’s what I’m here for as well as our Board and supporters.”

Craig is a small town in Northwest Missouri where the Duck Inn Café celebrated its Grand Opening last year. Owner Charmaine Flint says, “We may not be able to continually support the Café alone, so we rely on other towns and freeway traffic to help support the café. It makes advertising absolutely necessary. NWMEF helped me to do that effectively.” Flint does not believe in just having a business in the community, she makes it her mission to be active in holiday and community celebrations. She also opens the Café as a community center on Friday nights offering board games, cards, dominoes and pool for children and adults to enjoy.

National statistics indicated that in the month of July 45,000 employees lost their jobs. Savannah native, Jennifer Kinder, was a local victim of this calamity as both she and her husband lost their jobs that month. She decided she no longer wanted to have to depend on others for employment and took control of her own destiny by embarking on a journey of owning her own business. She has never looked back. But when Kinder decided to become an entrepreneur she needed some assistance. The Savannah Chamber of Commerce referred her to Annette Weeks, facilitator for Northwest Missouri Enterprise Facilitation (NWMEF), to help her walk through the business concept.

“It was nice to have someone knowledgeable to bounce ideas around with and to help us with our financials,” Kinder said. “Everything happened so fast,” said Kinder. “Just maintaining enough energy for it all has been challenging, but the people, and the opportunity to get better acquainted with the community has made it all worthwhile.”

The formation of Northwest Missouri Enterprise Facilitation was based on rural neighbors’ strong faith in the sustainability of their own rural community. Project volunteers maintain their belief in the passion, entrepreneurship, innovation, and creativity of rural people. They persist, in their desire to help others attain their fundamental needs for love, respect, dignity while preserving the quality and beauty of the rural way of life. Northwest Missouri Enterprise Facilitation board member continue to move forward, even when fundraising efforts for their nonprofit organization prove more and more difficult. They believe that the economic downturn will eventually swing upward in Northwest Missouri, and they humbly anticipate that their efforts will have been at least partly responsible for this success. Until that time these “good neighbors” trust that God will use them to transform the talents and visions of passionate rural people into good work.