Calling all brainstormers: Washington County has several programs in place to support entrepreneurial ventures and help grow existing businesses.
One initiative is an annual Washington County Business Plan Challenge that provides $5,000 in grant money to someone starting a new business, and another $5,000 to an individual expanding his or her existing business. The contest starts in early February and ends in late March. The prize is funded by the Washington County Industrial Development Authority and the Town of Abingdon.
For the challenge, participants fill out applications and attend six consecutive Tuesday night business classes at the Virginia Highlands Small Business Incubator. Anonymous judges who are business experts grade the participants' business plans, which competitors also pitch to a panel of judges. Two weeks after the pitches, the chamber announces two winners, who receive a list of mentors they can rely on for support over the coming year to help ensure their success.
Business Challenge Success Story
In 2014, one of the inaugural Business Challenge grant winners was Amy Ball Braswell, co-owner with her husband, Gill, of Capo's Music Store in Abingdon.
“Winning a Business Challenge grant helped us expand Capo’s to offer music lessons and educational seminars as well as grow online sales,” Braswell says.
Capo’s is a niche retail business specializing in stringed instruments associated with bluegrass and old-time music. Its product line includes banjos, mandolins, fiddles, auto harps, dulcimers and Virginia-made guitars.
“The store has become nationally known, and we even established a Capo’s Academy that rents instruments at low prices to aspiring musicians,” Braswell says. “I really appreciate what the Business Challenge did to help Capo’s expand.”
The SBDC and People Inc.
Also in place in Washington County to assist entrepreneurs and business owners is a Small Business Development Center on the Virginia Highlands Community College campus. The SBDC provides one-on-one counseling in areas such as e-commerce, finance, manufacturing, developing international trade, and veterans assistance.
Another resource for entrepreneurs and small-business owners, People Inc., offers services that include microenterprise loans, business plan development, and consulting on how to receive tax credits. People Inc. also provides affordable-interest loans for up to 36 months to provide assistance with many household expenses, car purchases and bill consolidation, so individuals can better concentrate on getting their business established or expanded.
Washington County entrepreneurs also have access to the Virginia Highlands Small Business Incubator, a 40,000-square-foot building that provides tools for startups and expanding businesses to succeed.
“We offer reasonable rent and access to high-speed Internet, VoIP, postage meter, copy machine and free fax until startup and expanding companies have the reasonable resources to incubate out,” says Cathy Lowe, Virginia Highlands Small Business Incubator executive director. “Some of our local business success stories include The Crooked Road, Round the Mountain, Northrop Grumman and US Solutions, a call center that has created 400 jobs.”
In addition, the Incubator has been chosen to house a Center of Excellence Advanced Manufacturing Program that will train area adults and college students interested in careers in advanced manufacturing.
“Also with an office at the Incubator is the Virginia Department of Small Business & Supplier Diversity, and Sandy Ratliff is the Southwest Manager. VSDBSD helps pull all of our many incubator programs together,” Lowe says. “Many entrepreneurs and businesses are helped by resource partners whose efforts are coordinated at the Small Business Incubator.”