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Wednesday, 21 September 2011 13:43

Mountain BizWorks to close Sylva field office

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You know economic times are tough when the business that helps other businesses thrive shuts its doors, too.

The Mountain BizWorks office in Sylva, which serves would-be entrepreneurs and other small business owners in the state’s seven westernmost counties, will close next June.

Shaw Canale, executive director of the group, emphasized this is “a pause” by the group, not a full stop or retrenchment. Mountain BizWorks, headquartered in Asheville, has maintained a physical presence via the Sylva office in the westernmost counties for more than a decade.

“We need to figure out, how do we deliver what we need to deliver into very rural communities?” Canale said. “What’s the real impact we are having, and how do we measure that?”

Bottom line, financial issues forced the closure. The decision to close the Sylva office was made “carefully and systematically,” Canale said. “This very difficult decision was made to ensure that in time Mountain BizWorks can achieve a level of self-sufficiency that will assure that we remain financially healthy.”

One full-time staffer and one part-time staffer, as well as workshop leaders and business coaches hired on a contract basis, will lose jobs as a result of the shutdown in Sylva.

Resource specialist Sheryl Rudd is the part-time staffer at Mountain BizWorks. She and her husband, Dieter Kuhn, started Heinzelmannchen Brewery eight years ago with the help from the nonprofit where Rudd now works. She said Kuhn went through an eight-week course provided by the nonprofit to help determine whether a craft brewery could be successful in Sylva. Kuhn developed a business plan and figured out how to market the product he wanted to produce.

“It was critical,” Rudd said, “to deciding is this going to work, is it not going to work.”

Rudd and Kuhn also relied on Mountain BizWorks for a loan that, coupled with personal funding and investor dollars, allowed them to launch Heinzelmannchen Brewery. Rudd worries whether future entrepreneurs in the area will be able to find similar support in years to come.

Rudd said as the economy soured and grant dollars became increasingly difficult to attain, Mountain BizWorks found itself competing for an ever-smaller pot of money with organizations that provide food, clothing and utility-payment help.

“Of course if it comes down to helping small businesses or feeding someone, you are going to choose to feed someone,” Rudd said, adding that such an obvious need, however, does not mean small-business owners don’t deserve help.

The loss of Mountain BizWork’s local presence also worries and saddens Annie Ritota, who with husband, Joe, owns Annie’s Naturally Bakery in Sylva. The wholesale side of the bakery is based in Asheville.

The Ritotas turned to Mountain BizWorks for help about four years ago. The business, founded in 1999 in the couple’s garage, had grown into a success story “but we’d sort of lost our focus,” Annie Ritota said.

“They helped right our ship and get it turned in the correct direction,” she said. “We were at a place where we weren’t sure where we were going.”

Mountain BizWorks helped the bakery reduce the line of products offered, plus helped resolve cash flow and bookkeeping issues. Ritota said after that positive experience, she often recommends new business owners avail themselves of the nonprofit’s expertise.

Now, Mountain BizWorks has similar anxieties regarding its own purpose and focus. “We are not getting the type impact we want to see,” Canale said. “We want to do things in a much more thoughtful, durable way.”

“There are times when the best decision to make is to stop doing what you’re doing and to give yourself a clear space for reconsidering what to do,” she said. “That’s the situation we’re in now  — the answer is not to try harder and do more, but to stop and think and be sure that whatever we do next is right and that we can support and sustain our work.”

Canale said there is definitely a huge and growing interest in agriculture options in the western counties, as well as across Western North Carolina. Agriculture might well provide at least one area where Mountain BizWorks can continue to serve this section of the region.

Rudd said 35 people attended a workshop recently in Sylva, hosted by Mountain BizWorks, on forest-farm products.

The group is working on a three-year ag-biz pilot project to determine whether, and how, Mountain BizWorks would be helpful to small family farms in Western North Carolina.

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