WILLMAR - The climate for retail business in America is challenging, especially for small, independently owned stores who have to battle against not only online shopping, but the big box stores as well. One doesn't have to go far in the local area to see the impact of this changing shopping culture.

"All you have to do is walk through the mall. It is a very hard time for our merchants," said Kathy Schwantes, University of Minnesota Extension Southwest Regional director at the Mid-Central Research and Outreach Center in Willmar.

For more than a year, Schwantes and colleagues from the University and the local Economic Development Commission have been talking about what could be done to assist local retail businesses. What came of those discussions is an intensive, 10-week program to help improve and expand retail businesses in Kandiyohi County.

"It is really important, so people feel they have support," said Neil Linscheid, associate Extension professor at the University of Minnesota Extension Center for Community Vitality.

The Kandiyohi County Retail Business Design Workshops will start Feb. 6. The program is made up of five workshops and five coaching sessions covering topics that include store presentation, retail and inventory management, marketing and retail trends. The speakers planned for the workshops are well-respected and successful in the fields of retail and three of them are also instructors at the University of Minnesota.

"Our presenters are the best of the best," Schwantes said.

There will also be the possibility of a few of the workshop participants receiving technical assistance from the University of Minnesota to help create a plan for their business using the skills learned from the workshop.

"A plan they can execute to take their business to the next level," Schwantes said.

Willmar will be the first city to host such a program and the hope is this pilot program will be used elsewhere.

"It is our goal to help as many people as we can," Schwantes said. "We wanted to create a program that could be replicated."

The Willmar Main Street program, the local arm of the statewide program run by the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota, is excited to be part of the workshops, which could be very beneficial for all the businesses in downtown Willmar.

"It fit so well with the essence of Main Street," said Sarah Swedburg, city planner and Main Street coordinator in Willmar. "Help build that revitalization with our businesses."

Willmar's diverse business community is one of the reasons why the University and the other partners felt starting such a program in Willmar was a good idea.

"There are some real opportunities. Businesses that offer unique product and experience are important," Linscheid said. "It is not a liability, it is a real asset Willmar has."

Schwantes said the goal is to get 20 to 30 people to sign up for the workshops by Jan. 31. There is a $250 cost, but there are scholarships available.

"Seeing the price tag should not be a barrier," Swedburg said. "Being a small business owner is hard. This is huge, such an opportunity."

Those wanting to register can do so at www.kandiyohi.com/retail.

"This is intended for our locally owned businesses throughout Kandiyohi County," Schwantes said.

The workshops could also be a good place to learn and network for those thinking about one day opening their own shop.

"It could help them at the early part of their journey," Linscheid said.

Once the workshops and coaching sessions are completed, the program's creators are looking forward to seeing the results, whether it is a spruced up storefront or the opening of a brand new business. There is also the hope that the workshops and their impact will bring more public attention to the retail opportunities right here in Kandiyohi County.

"In the really long term, we want to make sure there is more interest in the community to support local retailers," Linscheid said.