Small Companies Can Mean Big Business for Bismarck Entrepreneurs

By Elizabeth Ulrich on April 28, 2011 at 6:07 pm EST
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Magazines across the country have dubbed Bismarck “the town the recession forgot,” and they’ve done so for good reason. Even in these tough economic times, Bismarck business is booming—and not just for large retailers and big corporations. As farmer and entrepreneur Jay Basquiat can tell you, even the little guy is getting a piece of the pie around these parts.

After roaming around the country for years, Basquiat, a North Dakota native, felt a certain pull to return to the prairie he loved. As a longtime gardener and self-proclaimed homesteader, Basquiat wanted to put his business sense and his love for the land—not to mention the demand for local produce—to the test.

In 2008, he launched Baskets of Plenty Produce, a community supported agriculture (CSA) business located on two and a half acres just outside of Mandan, also known as Bismarck’s sister city.

Basquiat’s business premise is simple: He grows the food and markets the bounty to the public. Before tilling the soil each spring, he sells shares of the season’s impending crop to locals. As he plants, tends and harvests the produce, shareholders receive weekly boxes brimming with the freshest local fare, including peas, zucchini, kale and sweet corn, just to name a few.

“When people buy into a CSA, they’re buying into the whole season—what’s good and bad about it, the ups and downs and everything in between,” Basquiat says. This mantra ensures that Basquiat is not only closely linked to the soil, the seeds and the cold weather snaps that can affect both, but he is also connected to the residents who show up to collect their bushels each week.

Experts say it is that very sense of community that helps Bismarck entrepreneurs succeed. Nancy Krogen-Abel, the Regional Director for the North Dakota Small Business Development Center, says that for a small business to thrive in Bismarck, community connection is key. “Even though Bismarck is one of the largest cities in the state, it’s still small enough for a small business to really stand out, especially if that business is giving back to the community,” she says.

As Basquiat is quick to point out, he is undoubtedly a beneficiary of such community support. During his first year on the farm—or as he calls it, the “maiden voyage”—Basquiat sold 35 shares. “I didn’t do one bit of advertising, and I filled those shares through word of mouth,” he says. “This year, I developed a website and increased the number of shares to 50. I even had to start turning people away.”

It’s an inspiring story, especially in a time when factories and mom-and-pop stores alike are shutting their doors across the country. But in Bismarck, Basquiat’s tale isn’t exactly unique. You simply won’t find many going out of business signs here.

In fact, Bismarck ranked sixth on the Forbes 2009 list of Best Small Places for Business and Careers, which also listed the city at the top of the pack for the cost of doing business and job and income growth. Really, it’s no wonder.

After all, the Bismarck metro jobless rate has been dropping steadily since February. In July 2009, the metro area had an unemployment rate of 3.1 percent—an economic feat when compared to the 9.7 percent national unemployment rate during that same period.

Bismarck’s bigger industries definitely are thriving. Last year, core industries like agriculture and energy had strong showings. The state’s economic boom even helped MDU Resources, an energy, construction materials and utility resources company, become the first North Dakota firm to be named to the Fortune 500 list.

The many government employees who live in Bismarck, the state’s capitol, aren’t exactly feeling the economic crunch either. They recently received 5 percent raises. US News and World Report highlighted the security of such public-sector jobs when it named Bismarck to its 2009 list of 10 Best Cities for Job-Seeking Retirees.

It’s easy to see how all of the good economic news coming out of Bismarck could embolden an entrepreneur to take a chance, especially with so community resources lined up to help small businesses make it happen.

Julie Kuennen, executive director of Bismarck’s I.D.E.A. Center, which is also known as the Incubator for Developing Entrepreneurial Activity, says the non-profit recently increased its current client base from 20 to 40. To date, the center has worked with 86 entrepreneurs in an attempt to take their big ideas and turn them into even bigger successes.

Basquiat now knows a great deal about such success. Thanks to growing local support for the bushels of veggies he delivers each week, he can afford to spend most of his days pulling weeds on the patch of prairie land that drew him back home several years ago. Sure, there may be days when Basquiat spends more than 12 hours knee deep in that rich, North Dakota dirt, but he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I feel like I’m really making a contribution to the community,” he says. “By being a farmer and by farming the way that I do, it just connects me with this place.”

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