By BECKY GILLETTE
The Rural Strong Initiative by the Small Business Administration (SBA) will put a stronger focus on nonurban areas of America, which includes small businesses in those areas throughout the country, said SBA Mississippi District Director Janita Stewart.
Stewart said the Rural Strong Initiative Is particularly important for Mississippi with the state being so rural. The SBA conducted events throughout the summer that Stewart says were designed to whet the appetite of small businesses and entrepreneurs in rural areas and to lay the groundwork for the Mississippi Rural Strong initiative that is on the horizon.
“Relative specifically to our rural outreach focus, on top of a significant amount of other outreach we do, we have traveled around this state working with various organizations including cities, towns, Chambers of Commerce and other economic development organizations providing information and education to event attendees on SBA programs and services and how they could benefit from this assistance,” Stewart said. “From July through federal fiscal year end September 30th, we have conducted events in Carthage, Laurel, Lucedale, Fayette, Collins, Waynesboro, Leakesville, Picayune, Forest, Pontotoc, Grenada, and Holly Springs reaching a total of almost 300 small businesses, entrepreneurs, people interested in starting a business and participants.”
She said they hope to double that number going into fiscal year 2019 via the Mississippi Rural Strong initiative working in collaboration with USDA Rural Development in Mississippi. In looking forward, they shared information about the Mississippi Rural Strong initiative with attendees at the final rural outreach workshops conducted during the summer.
“Interest has varied from location to location with respect to the rural outreach events we conducted during fiscal year 2018, but overall was good,” Stewart said. “Going forward with the Mississippi Rural Strong initiative, we expect interest to increase significantly and we expect beneficial results for rural small businesses in our state. SBA Mississippi and USDA Rural Development in Mississippi will be working closely together during fiscal year 2019 to ensure we do all we can to reach and assist small businesses throughout rural Mississippi. Stay tuned for much more to come.”
The Rural Strong initiative in SBA Region IV was launched this summer by SBA Southeast Regional Administrator Ashley Bell in conjunction with the USDA Rural Development State Director in Georgia. SBA Regional Administrator Bell oversees SBA’s southeast region which comprises the states of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, Kentucky and Tennessee.
Stewart said the national Rural Strong initiative stems from the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) executed by SBA Administrator Linda McMahon and Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, which made a commitment to improve each agencies’ program effectiveness, identify ways to increase the benefits of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, increase access to capital through enhanced collaboration and coordination in areas of both agencies’ mutual interest, transform rural communities by infusing rural areas with stronger businesses and agriculture economies, and aid rural businesses in providing tools to export products around the world.
Stewart said from a more broad and national perspective, the goals and objectives are for the USDA and SBA to form interagency workgroups to improve coordination on issues of common concern including, but not limited to, the following:
*Capital Access and Investment in Rural America. Collaborate to bring more capital, public and private, to rural communities. Identify the synergies between the $1 billion Business & Industry fund that USDA uses to finance rural entrepreneurs and the $30 billion SBA 7(a) fund to finance more rural small businesses to increase the quality of life in rural America. Areas for collaboration could include actions such as exploring opportunities for Rural Business Service to deliver SBA funds to rural customers via an existing network of state offices and relationships with rural lenders. The program will also examine cooperation between Small Business Investment Companies (SBIC) and Rural Business Investment Program (RBIC) in channeling investments to rural small businesses. It will also include guidance to the mandate that a certain percentage of SBA’s $4 billion fund of funds be used to focus on rural businesses and explore the opportunity to license SBICs automatically if already licensed RBIC.
*Assisting Business in Rural America. Collaborate on opportunities to expand business in rural communities. Create an overlapping diagram between the rural markets identified by USDA, Historically Underutilized Business Zones rural tracts identified by SBA, and the Opportunity Zones identified by Treasury to ensure that small businesses in rural areas benefit from the Tax Cut and Jobs Act. Explore if opportunities exist to establish innovation clusters with Small Business Development Centers (SBDCs), SCORE Chapters and Women’s Business Centers in rural areas. Determine if SBA’s budget to support Native American areas can be used more effectively with counsel from USDA. Collaborate on technical assistance such as exporting and procurement.
Kimberly LaRosa, Executive Director and CEO of The Renaissance Community Loan Fund in Gulfport, the only Mississippi home-based SBA Microlender in state, said she hopes people in rural areas take advantage of SBA programs available to them. She said their lending staff has just finished up a lot of the SBA and Meet the Microlender workshops in rural areas across the state.
“And they are now back looking at how to cultivate our applications from those areas,” LaRosa said. “We have specific federal money that needs to go into rural areas within the State of Mississippi, so we are looking at all avenues into how to deploy that. I think people in the rural areas just don’t get the communications that we do in the more populated area, but goods and services are needed in those areas, especially for low-income families. Providing goods and services into those rural areas is what we are attempting to do. And with us, it doesn’t have to be a new business. It can be an existing business that has an opportunity to expand.”
LaRosa said they have outreach coordinators in Jackson and Tupelo, in addition to at the headquarters in Gulfport. They also have personnel availability in the Hattiesburg area.
For more information about the programs available through The Renaissance Community Loan Fund, call 228.896.3386. To contact the SBA, call SBA District and branch offices main numbers of 601-965-4378 and 228-863-4449.
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