Entrepreneurial development no simple solution


With town and business development, there appears to be ups and downs. We’ll go through a period where we seem to be writing about a new restaurant or business opening every week, and then we go through a period where we write about them closing.

The last four or five months have been a bit of a sweat off period in Newton, with the downtown losing a number of restaurants and businesses. Perhaps the largest blow to the downtown was the sudden closure of 701 Cafe, which appeared popular and busy on the days it was open.

That corner cafe has been a mainstay in Newton for a good number of years, and we’d hate to see it become like “the Old Mill.”

Before 701 closed, the talk for a year was “who is Newton going to find to fill the Old Mill?” That opening came following the closure of another popular restaurant, Reba’s.

And in the blocks between the two on Main Street sits another restaurant recently closed—Fuji Japanese Bistro—which followed about three other restaurants that could make a go of it in that location.

Now this isn’t a “this economy” doom and gloom editorial. Restaurateurs have been able to make a go of it in Newton.

Both Genova’s and Back Alley Pizza were recently featured in a State of Kansas tourism magazine promoting the restaurants as some of the better hometown favorites to eat at in the state.

Those restaurants and others, such as The Breadbasket, show the ability to have some regional pull and draw in dollars from outside the county.

Genova’s and Back Alley haven’t been around forever. They’re relatively new. So what makes some businesses work and others not succeed?

It comes down to catching the breaks for sure, but also in our mind, planning, leadership and drive.

Robert Palmer, owner of Back Alley, is a hard-working man with a plan. Rosie Martin at Genova will be serving tables, running the register and bantering with customers most nights you go in.

People have to have an eye for food, for customer service, for business.

And then there’s the other side of business: the numbers.

All these factors set a pretty high bar for those just starting out.

So, really, the answer to empty restaurants and buildings is simple: Newton needs more highly talented and motivated entrepreneurs willing to tie up much of their lives and earnings to take a risk at succeeding when it’s as likely they will not.

Who’s ready to line up and try?

How do we find these people? How do we develop them? How do we keep these people in the community?

We don’t have all the answers, and really, we don’t think most governing bodies or those interested in economic development have all the answers, either, otherwise we’d be deploying them.

As with many parts in life, we’re stuck with the spaghetti method: throw stuff at the wall and see if it sticks.

One idea we’ve mentioned and have heard tossed around is a sort of business incubator or low interest loan program.

There could be a board of local business owners and community residents who would administer low interest small loans to entrepreneurs interested in starting up. Newton missed out on the state E-Community program that would have started such a pool of funding, but we hope to see the chamber and Harvey County Economic Development apply for the program again the following year.

But perhaps the low interest or no interest loans provided through a program should be contingent on future business owners participating in a mentoring program, where successful business owners in the community could give advice or tips on how to run a business.

They’d help coach them on dos and don’ts in hopes of creating solid and reliable employment and services in the community. We could get behind that, as long as there’s oversight for the program and the board that runs it.

These ideas take a lot of community volunteering and buy in from busy people, but developing entrepreneurs is no short process.

Pair such a program with the idea of start up businesses working out of a shared office space to keep expenses down and we might start gaining more traction. We’ve seen private iterations of this idea in the past, where non-profits teamed up to keep costs low.

Understandably, there’s only a certain amount of money to go around and be spent in Newton to support businesses, but we do have money traveling out of the county as well as money traveling in. We think there are likely niches in Newton where we can capture more out-of-county money and keep more of our dollars local.

It’s just going to take community support, as well as the right people having access to the right resources.

Simple, right?