Itasca Economic Development Corporation (IEDC), in partnership with the Entrepreneur Fund and the Blandin Foundation, acted quickly this spring to develop the Itasca Small Business Relief Fund (ISBRF), a loan program designed to offset the serious impacts small businesses within Itasca County have faced in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“When Governor Walz issued stay at home orders that forced Minnesota businesses to close, we knew many local entrepreneurs would be in difficult financial positions,” explained Tamara Lowney, IEDC President. “Small business is the core of Itasca County. We created the ISBRF to provide emergency funding for those who need it most.”

IEDC designed the ISBRF to supplement available state and federal funding for business owners. It also created access to additional funding specifically for Itasca County business owners, many of whom did not meet state or federal funding criteria.

The ongoing pandemic has placed a heavy burden on small business owners. Those in Itasca County have continued to work, innovate, and sustain their businesses despite major setbacks. Their tenacity has kept Itasca County strong, and their willingness to work together and seek help from local partners speaks to a determination that can only be found here. IEDC and their partners are proud to be part of the solution with the ISBRF, which was funded by IEDC and the Blandin Foundation.

“As IEDC Board Members, we recognized the critical need to support businesses in our community during this crisis,” explained Bart Johnson, IEDC Board Chair. “It was important to act quickly to provide viable financial options and support services. Business owners are working tirelessly to stay afloat during this pandemic, and we are grateful to play a small part in their story.”

After an emergency IEDC board meeting, IEDC dedicated $300,000 to the ISBRF and accessed a $500,000 loan from the Blandin Foundation. With these funds, the ISBRF has made $800,000 available to 39 applicants from Itasca County and the Blandin footprint communities of Hill City, Remer, Blackduck and Northome.

Help for Any Itasca County Business
When COVID-19 struck, unemployment rates soared in Itasca County. Over 6,000 people were left without work, forced to access federal unemployment to support their families. Businesses tried to adapt quickly, but many didn’t have options to remain open, even in a limited capacity. The impacts hit very close to home when non-essential businesses were required to close. The 39 ISBRF loan recipients comprise 17 different industries, with about half of the recipients in hospitality and retail.

Loans from the ISBRF have been disbursed to businesses throughout Itasca County, with 33% of funds going to businesses in Grand Rapids, 43% to businesses in greater Itasca County, and 24% to businesses within the Blandin Foundation footprint communities. Loan recipients include 14 women-owned businesses, two minority-owned businesses, and three veteran-owned businesses.

“Creating a loan fund doesn’t happen overnight, but thanks to our team and our outstanding partners, we began granting loans in a matter of weeks. It was incredible,” continued Lowney.

The ISBRF has helped restore affected business’ financial health while preparing owners to make strategic changes to keep operations up and running. Rob Sjostrand, IEDC Business Consultant, Tony Ward, IEDC Business Consultant, and Mike Korte, Sr. Business Loan Officer at the Entrepreneur Fund, have been instrumental in launching the ISBRF program and its continued success.

The Locker Room Bar and Grill Finds Hope Amid Hardship
Many business owners in Itasca County didn’t know what to do or where to turn when COVID-19 persisted week after week. Ron Maki, owner of the Locker Room Bar and Grill in Coleraine, MN, hoped the pandemic would be short-lived, but instead was forced to close his restaurant’s doors and lay off his staff when the state shut down.

Things continued to get worse as the restaurant remained closed. Without patrons, expenses continued to add up until it looked like the Locker Room Bar and Grill wouldn’t survive the pandemic. Luckily, a friend told Maki about the IEDC’s funding opportunities for local businesses in a tight spot. He reached out and was met with enthusiasm, understanding, and a strong desire to help from both the IEDC and Entrepreneur Fund teams.

“From the moment we started working together, I felt their determination to see me though this dismal situation, said Maki. “Every detail of every step that I went through to access financing would not have been possible without IEDC and the Entrepreneur Fund. They did everything in their power to make sure that the Locker Room Bar and Grill made it through successfully to the other side.”

With financial assistance and strategic guidance, Maki shifted his business plan to accommodate takeout and delivery service and ensured the Locker Room Bar and Grill could open for outdoor dining on June 1, 2020. Many local restaurants faced a similar fate but found help in all the right places. Nearly half of the ISBRF recipients are in the hospitality and retail sectors.

The Wedding Parlour Perseveres
The wedding industry is naturally cyclical, with annual busy and slow seasons. Bridal shops tend to balance these highs and lows with services for other events, like prom, graduations, galas, and more. But when a global pandemic strikes and all of those events are canceled; the entire wedding industry suffers.

Teri Haig, owner of The Wedding Parlour in Grand Rapids, felt the strains of COVID-19 acutely. With spring weddings postponed indefinitely and local proms canceled, The Wedding Parlour’s usual steadfast revenue stream came to a grinding halt. Dress orders were put on hold. Tux rentals stopped completely. All the while, Haig’s commitment to her customers never wavered. She modified store hours, scheduled fitting appointments strategically to space them out, and honored 100% refund policies on tux rentals.

Closing The Wedding Parlour’s doors in March in accordance with the governor’s executive orders was the scariest and most uncertain time Haig had ever experienced in over 24 years of operation. She didn’t know if her business could survive the shutdown. Then she learned about the ISBRF.

“IEDC and the Entrepreneur Fund were invaluable partners during an incredibly low point for my business,” said Haig. “They not only wanted to help, but they were also genuine, compassionate and realistic in every interaction. Never once did I feel like I’d done something wrong to be in this position. They understood, and they gave me the tools I needed to see this through.”

Access to emergency funding and assistance in trying new strategies made all the difference for The Wedding Parlour. Haig continued to provide bridal consultations and even participated in a virtual bridal show in May. She spruced up the shop, increased social media efforts, and was prepared to reopen safely on May 18, 2020.

“Words can hardly express my gratitude,” continued Haig. “We’re all in this together, and together we will persevere.”

Support Beyond the Loan Fund
IEDC didn’t stop after securing funding for small business loans. The IEDC team has continued to provide support and leadership to Itasca County area businesses during the COVID-19 crisis.

“IEDC is incredibly proud of the ISBRF loan program, but it isn't enough. We are committed to helping area business owners rethink and rebuild for a landscape that has been forever changed,” said Lowney.

The IEDC team has led daily calls discussing updates on state and federal funding opportunities, guided clients through all funding possibilities, and added a COVID-19 page to the IEDC website to share up to date and accurate information.

“Itasca County has a great asset in small business owners, IEDC leadership, and funding partners like the Blandin Foundation,” said Shawn Wellnitz, Entrepreneur Fund CEO. “The ability to provide services and capitalize these businesses quickly is a testament to bringing all these strengths together for a stronger Itasca County.”

Wildwood Resort Finds Support Close to Home
Jay and Kim Jamtgaard have owned Wildwood Resort for just over two decades, and although they’re open year-round, the summer season is essential to making the year whole. As the realities of COVID-19 sunk in, the Jamtgaards felt the full weight of the pandemic’s enormity. Without a summer full of guests, they had no idea how they’d be able to hold on to their family business and their home.

Luckily, the folks at Visit Grand Rapids encouraged them to attend IEDC’s weekly Zoom calls. After the first call, they were amazed at the local resources available to area business owners. On these calls, IEDC helped attendees understand the many programs the federal government offered, disseminate accurate information and gain awareness of local challenges as they arose.

“We’re so glad we attended that first Zoom call. It marks a turning point in our business outlook for the year,” explained Jay Jamtgaard. “We learned about PPP funding, an EIDL grant opportunity through the Small Business Administration, and the low-interest loan opportunity through the ISBRF.”

Accessing these funds helped the Wildwood team weather early-season cancellations and made it possible to prepare for summer guests. They also received support and guidance from Kirk Adams at Deerwood Bank. When local businesses and economic development organizations come together to help one another, amazing things happen. It’s a true testament to the strength of the Itasca County business community.

IEDC is an essential resource – whether or not a pandemic is in full swing. The organization attracts new business to the community and is also a wealth of knowledge and resources for any local business. Large or small, new or old, IEDC is there to help business owners navigate whatever comes.

Itasca County: Stronger Together
Entrepreneurship has always been a little bit isolating. Long hours, extreme responsibility, and an unshakable desire to drive growth doesn’t leave much time to build connections. Throw in a global pandemic and mandates to limit contact with others, and all business plans for the year were essentially null and void. IEDC wants area business owners to know they’re not alone.

IEDC wants to see all area businesses survive this crisis and the impending economic downturn. Business owners are encouraged to reach out to the IEDC team to discuss opportunities and strategies for ongoing success. Organizations like IEDC, the Entrepreneur Fund and the Blandin Foundation are here to help.

"At the onset of COVID-19, IEDC quickly stepped up and led efforts to connect businesses to the resources they needed to stay open and keep people employed," said Sonja Merrild, director of grants at Blandin Foundation. "We're grateful for their leadership and all they do to keep Itasca area communities vibrant."
IEDC would like to extend a special thanks to the Entrepreneur Fund and the Blandin Foundation, for their valuable partnership in developing the ISBRF as well as their commitment to supporting the hardworking business owners who choose to operate in Itasca County.