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Report puts spotlight on challenges of Mississippi’s rural small businesses

By TED CARTER

A national business advocacy group says a survey it did of small businesses in rural Mississippi found a troubled landscape with a growing need for problem solvers.

One consequence of the difficult terrain is lingering pain from the “great recession”. It has yet to entirely lift in the harder-to-reach stretches of the Magnolia State, say the authors of the 42-page report prepared by Washington, D.C.-based Small Business Majority.

It’s hardly just Mississippi, said Small Business Majority Founder & CEO John Arensmeyer, in a cover letter to the report “Examining the Unique Opportunities and Challenges Facing Rural Small Businesses.”

“Rural communities,” he said, are “lagging behind their urban and suburban counterparts. If we want to revive rural economies, we must stimulate entrepreneurial activity in these communities to help reverse these trends.”

Any reversal, the introduction to the report suggests, will require ending a “reluctance among major companies, banks and healthcare providers to serve the area.”

At the same time, they need more help overcoming difficulties in hiring and retaining qualified workers as well as accessing capital to build their businesses, the report says.

The report emphasizes that although owners of small businesses in isolated parts of the state play a key role in all facets of life within their communities, business downsides keep piling up as a consequence of operating in isolated regions.

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“They face unique barriers as rural small business owners, including a lack of awareness of resources available to them and challenges accessing local business support programs when they are aware of them,” say the authors whose report drew from roundtable discussions and focus groups in Mississippi, Georgia, Texas and New Mexico.

Some of the challenges accessing local business networking and support programs come down to covering memberships in basic small-town mainstays such as chambers of commerce or Rotary clubs, the report authors say.

The owner of a small business in Starkville who took part in a focus group emphasized it’s a tough call on spending any spare money for networking. “Start-ups have to be mindful of who they first connect with,” the business owner said. “As a start-up, there are countless organizations and groups that want you to join, but they’re all expensive just to network—sometimes $500 or more every year, which is not reasonable.”

In introducing the report, the authors noted the focus group participants put barriers to credit and difficulties hiring the right workers atop their lists of concerns. “Rural small business owners also face challenges in accessing financing options, and they struggle to find and retain a talented workforce,” they said.

“Additionally, their more remote locations lead to challenges accessing broadband, healthcare providers and goods and services,” they note.

The business advocacy group also found the  recession brought existing small enterprises some new compadres — men and women who worked in occupations until the economic crisis displaced them.

Business gave them a lifeline, and an opportunity to employ themselves in ventures related to knowledge and skills gained on the job. It also gave them the same challenges of older small businesses – remoteness, tight money and limited options, according to the report.

The report included community roundtables of civic and government stakeholders in Hattiesburg and Biloxi and focus groups of rural  small business owners at stops in Jackson, Tupelo, Oxford and Rankin County.

The Small Business Majority followed with a national survey of businesses in rural regions and small towns.  Greenberg Quinlan Rosner did the online survey of 530 small businesses from Sept. 17 to Sept. 25, 2018. Pollsters restricted participants to small businesses with 1-100 employees, with a cap of 25 percent on sole proprietors.

The worries and concerns drawn from the discussion groups and online survey were offset by an increasing sense of optimism from the business owners about their communities’ economic condition, the report authors said.

The owners “are eager to help generate economic development in their towns, but there is still more work to be done to coordinate and expand efforts to support these entrepreneurs,” the report noted.

The close of the report proposes steps for making rural small businesses more viable.

To start, the report says, small-business assistance providers, philanthropic institutions and policymakers at the federal, state and local level should take targeted action on the needs and role of rural small business owners and other members of the small business ecosystem in rural places.

The targeted action should:

  Promote and increase small-business assistance in rural areas;

• Increase small-business lending options and investments in rural entrepreneurs;

• Improve affordability and access to health care in rural areas;

  Invest in rural infrastructure and access to broadband;

  Improve opportunities for rural small-business owners to attract and retain a skilled workforce.

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About Ted Carter

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