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Recession bringing out entrepreneurs, but can local governments wring out budgets to help them?

MONTEVIDEO -- As local governments look to trim recession-stressed budgets by slashing contributions to nonprofit organizations, one is making the rounds in search of support.

The very recession that has hurt government budgets is what makes support for the Entrepreneur's Assistance Network so critical at this time, board members of the organization told the Chippewa County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday.

Reductions in the region's work force have brought more people than ever before to the organization's downtown Montevideo office in search of help with launching their own businesses, according to Vern Lein, chairman, and board members Ruth Ann Lee and Lou Anne Kling. They want to see those businesses get started -- and succeed -- in the small towns that comprise the region.

Last year the Entrepreneur's Assistance Network worked one on one with 39 clients. Since the start of this year, 10 clients have already come calling. Many others come to the office in the Montevideo Business Development Center to use its resource library or get advice on specific matters.

The organization is seeing its own challenges. Its full-time director left last July. Lee and Kling -- both with years of experience in government and business fields -- took over the duties on a volunteer basis.

They continue to do so, convinced that the Entrepreneur's Assistance Network function has never been more important, they said. Their goal is to raise $36,000 in funding this year to get the organization back on track, and so that it can employ a part-time director to help with the duties.

The Entrepreneur's Assistance Network currently serves entrepreneurs in Chippewa, Lac qui Parle, Swift, Renville, Yellow Medicine and Kandiyohi counties.

It serves to fill the gap and assist the "mom and pop" type of entrepreneurs that government-sponsored economic development agencies don't usually assist, Lein said.

Many of its referrals come from economic development offices in the area. Lenders, Minnesota Work Force staff and word of mouth steer many others to the door, according to the board members.

The help offered is nuts and bolts. The co-facilitators help the entrepreneurs develop business plans, identify financing sources and meet regulatory issues. Kling said many of the clients come to the office with very good business ideas and often even the financing they need. But most have never operated a business -- they just don't know where to start.

Inside the organization's office, an entire wall is testimony to where they can go. Photos show the stories of dozens of businesses that have been launched with help from the network in the last 10 years. They range from the lone convenience store serving one small community to two ethnic groceries opened in another.

The board members said they are pursuing a variety of funding sources from both governmental and private agencies, and hope the counties served also will continue their support.

The Entrepreneur's Assistance Network lost funding support from Yellow Medicine County, which eliminated its contributions to nonprofit initiatives in the region, ranging from Prairie Waters tourism to the Upper Minnesota Valley Arts Meander, as part of 2010 budget reductions.

The three network board members came to Montevideo asking Chippewa County to continue its annual support of $5,000, as compared to the $3,000 proposed in the 2010 budget.

The commissioners said they would take the request under advisement.

The Entrepreneur's Assistance Network office is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Thursday at 301 N. First St., Montevideo, and can be reached by phone at 320-269-9724.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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