Imagine you're a small farmer who wants to sell salsa as well as raw tomatoes. Or maybe you're a home-based cook with a dynamite pesto recipe and a desire to share it with the world. Maybe you're an aspiring florist in search of retail space and start-up financing.
Well, if you live in southeastern Ohio, you’re in luck.
The Appalachian Center for Economic Networks (ACEnet) has spent the last 24 years providing entrepreneurs, food producers, artists, and artisans the training, guidance, and financial options they need to create and manage successful small businesses.
In 1996, ACEnet started the Food Ventures Center, a 12,000 square-foot commercial kitchen and storage space in Athens that is available to its clients for the production, packaging, and branding of their foods. The kitchen is where you come to make a huge batch of your salsa, put it in jars, apply labels, put them in a box, and take the product to market. For ACEnet clients, that could be a farmers’ market, a local store, or even a national chain.
If food production isn't your thing, you can become part of ACEnet's business incubator which offers low-cost rental space, access to shared equipment, and membership in the network.
As much as ACEnet encourages the creation of small, independent businesses, its underlying mission is to bring these businesses together into an interconnected professional network where owners can help other owners. "Building networks is really in the DNA of this organization. It's a strategy that's been a common theme throughout our 24 years," says Leslie Schaller, ACEnet's Business Counselor. "Now we can demonstrate the effectiveness of building sector-based networks and the impact they have on business growth."
Polly Creech, owner of the Hyacinth Bean Specialty Florist and Polly’s Flower Farm, is a member of the incubation program and gives credit to the business network strategy. "The support of the network builds new producers' confidence. It really gives them a launching point," said Polly. "ACEnet facilitated it, and we took it and ran with it," she said. "Now we're working with new businesses that we can also incorporate into what's already happened." Through her network connections, Polly offers locally grown plants and flowers, as well as local food and art products that compliment her business strategy.
Schaller, who has been with ACEnet from the beginning, said businesses in the network feed off each others’ success. "If you're having a wedding, you might get your cake from Busy Day Gourmet, some of the food from one of the many local caterers, and you might buy the floral arrangements from Polly."
Another perk of the sector-based network is bulk buying. The network often has individual businesses that need the same materials and so the connection allows them to buy in bulk which ultimately saves them a significant amount of money. ACEnet sees the value in helping maintain a collaborative environment where businesses take the initiative to share information and support each other.
A strong network can also open the door to markets that might be inaccessible to individual businesses. ACEnet aggregated a cluster of local food producers and worked with a national chain grocery store to create a special "Food We Love" section in their Athens store. This section includes pasta, pasta sauce, barbeque sauce, milk, and vinegar. Virtually any favorite food product that can be bottled or packaged can then be found on the shelf for customers to enjoy.
"Customers in this region realize they have many options to buy local. And it's easy. They can select healthy, local foods for their families while supporting local farmers and producers. ACEnet, along with our many partners, has helped build a network and culture that encourages local food production and consumption. This foundation, as part of the local food system, has now grown to take on a life of its own," says Leslie.
ACEnet has learned that having a strong peer network is important for small businesses to survive. As this region transitions away from an extractive economy, ACEnet understands that it is increasingly important to support and grow local businesses in ways that build wealth, provide opportunities, and protect the environment.
To learn more about ACEnet, please visit www.acenetworks.org.