EagleHerald/Rick Gebhard
Frank Frassetto, state director of USDA Rural Development in Wisconsin, talks about the launch of the new rural development programs at the Wisconsin Maritime Center of Excellence on Tuesday.
EagleHerald/Rick Gebhard

Frank Frassetto, state director of USDA Rural Development in Wisconsin, talks about the launch of the new rural development programs at the Wisconsin Maritime Center of Excellence on Tuesday.

MARINETTE — Tuesday morning at the Wisconsin Maritime Center of Excellence in Marinette saw a mix of economic development organizations, small business owners and aspiring entrepreneurs from the Marinette-Menominee area seeking to meet with representatives from two federal agencies that are hoping to help stimulate rural economies such as ours. 

The visit from representatives of the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) was part of the Wisconsin and Michigan “Rural Strong” tour, which stopped in Marinette and Ironwood, Mich., on Tuesday to visit with those seeking to learn how to start, grow and expand their businesses and local economies. According to SBA, the Rural Strong roundtable discussions and sessions aim to “educate attendees about federally-backed financing, ways to access funding and accessing small business advising opportunities available to them at no or low cost.” 

“This a really wonderful opportunity to have a compelling conversation on financial resources that are going to be available that are going to help with economic prosperity and the quality of life in the Marinette and Menominee area,” said Frank Frassetto, state director of USDA Rural Development in Wisconsin. 

Frassetto explained that in April 2017, President Donald Trump issued an executive order promoting agriculture and rural prosperity through an inter-agency task force. In support of that, the SBA signed a memorandum of understanding with the USDA that commits to a deeper collaboration and coordination of the agencies’ resources. The SBA is currently working to increase access to capital, improve opportunities for public and private investments in rural America and help rural businesses export products around the world. 

Frassetto and Eric Ness, district director for the SBA Wisconsin district, introduced a number of agency advocates, including a few from SBA; SCORE, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping small businesses get off the ground, grow and achieve their goals through education and mentorship; America’s Small Business Development Centers (SBDC); the Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corporation (WWBIC); Veterans Business Outreach Centers (VBOC); the Wisconsin Procurement Institute; WBD, a business finance resource that helps to create jobs, grow businesses and build communities; and many more. Following introductions and explanations about each agency and organization’s goals, Frassetto and Ness opened the roundtable discussion. 

When asked what the biggest issue SBA has with getting credit to rural communities, Ness said one of the SBA Wisconsin district’s goals is to increase and expand rural lending. 

“We have rural credit available,” he said. “I think this year, so far, we have about $85 million in the rural economy here. ... Basically, we want to get out there and try to figure out, what are some of the issues you’re having?” 

Regarding the definition of “rural,” Ness said the SBA’s definition of the term refers to population by county. Frassetto said the USDA’s definition is a little more complicated, but the Marinette and Menominee community technically qualifies as “rural.” 

Robert Pontius, executive director of InVenture North, said one of the challenges for many rural entrepreneurs is the need to quit their jobs in order to devote their full time to their start-up, which many financial lenders discourage. He asked what financial options were available to those who take this route. Ness said the options are largely dependent on each individual’s situation, such as if their spouse has a job, what sort of cash reserves are available to them or how large the loan is. 

Prior to and following the roundtable, InVenture North hosted a meet-and-greet with the representatives and provided handouts about their agencies and organizations. 

More than 46 million Americans live in counties designated as rural by the U.S. Census Bureau, but small businesses in rural areas may lack access to capital and other resources available in more urban areas. SBA says its Rural Strong initiative “aims to level the playing field and elevate small businesses by offering loan incentives and training entrepreneurs to access government contracting and export opportunities.”

The SBA and USDA partnership is built on the priorities of the president’s Inter-agency Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity. For more information on SBA, visit www.sba.gov.