AmeriCorps Opens Up New VISTAs for Downtown Delaware

Downtown Delaware, the statewide Main Street coordinating program housed in the Delaware Economic Development Office (DEDO), is dedicated to revitalization of eight designated Main Street communities and commercial business districts statewide. The program also helps local entrepreneurs grow and expand downtown. Last year, Downtown Delaware got some extra help. The program hired three AmeriCorps Volunteers In Service to America (VISTA) members for one year. The hires were made possible by a grant from the Corporation for National and Community Service, whose primary mission is to create and maintain self-sustaining programs to alleviate poverty. During their year of service with Downtown Delaware, the AmeriCorps VISTA members made a significant impact on the lives of many Delawareans by planning and implementing key community development initiatives that supported the missions of all three organizations. 

Student Business Mentoring Program, Milford, Delaware

Downtown Delaware VISTA volunteer Janice Neiman developed the first project in response to the state’s desire to grow an entrepreneurial ecosystem and provide greater career and educational options for children from low-income families. The purpose of the highly interactive Milford Business Mentoring Program (MBMP) was to expose entrepreneurially minded high school students to real-world, small business ownership. Volunteer entrepreneurs and business owners from downtown Milford mentored the students and engaged them in inspirational discussions, thus offering an innovative method of learning outside of the classroom. Inherent to the program was the strong recommendation that students pursue higher education to achieve their entrepreneurial goals, rather than jumping right into business ownership after high school. 

Seven aspiring entrepreneurs from Milford Senior High School participated in the MBMP which involved four lively, interactive sessions focused on entrepreneurship topics. The sessions were followed by mentor pairing with four downtown Milford merchants. The students spent eight weeks shadowing the entrepreneurs and speaking frankly with them about their business ownership challenges and advantages, their lifestyles, and the risks associated with entrepreneurism. Students were asked to blog their thoughts weekly at http://mbmp2011.blogspot.com/

In the MBMP exit evaluations, four of the participating students, some of whom had never been into the downtown businesses before the program, expressed interest in applying for a job at their respective mentors’ businesses. Most indicated that they plan to pursue their entrepreneurial dreams, now that they had the benefit of a mentor and a touch of real-world awareness. The small business mentors also expressed a sense of fulfillment in giving back to their community by guiding these young, aspiring entrepreneurs on their paths.

Programs like the MBMP play an important role in the development of future entrepreneurs by showing young people that entrepreneurship is a viable career option and providing resources to help them reach their goals. These mentoring programs also help Main Street cultivate the entrepreneurial spirit early through initiatives that help prevent brain-drain—students are encouraged to return downtown after college as experienced entrepreneurs, ready to take on the full challenges of entrepreneurship, while supporting their home towns.

Capping off Janice’s VISTA term with Downtown Delaware was receipt of a $3,000 grant from the Delaware Mentoring Council that will enable Downtown Milford, Inc., to continue the program throughout the next school year. The grant will primarily be used as a stipend for a volunteer coordinator to oversee the program.

Business Retention and Volunteerism

Another VISTA member, Alex Maroselli, focused her attention on a project to help local Main Street programs in two key areas: business retention and volunteerism. First, she developed a Business Owner Survey (BOS) to learn more about demographics, business operations, training needs, current customer trends, and merchant thoughts about the local Main Street organizations in Rehoboth Beach and Middletown. After the surveys were analyzed, Maroselli gave the towns a list of business retention recommendations, such as a joint advertising initiative, bounce-back coupons, and establishing a bi-monthly merchants meeting. The survey also revealed potential training topics, such as downtown relationship-building, incorporating eCommerce sales and marketing, merchandising, and window display, etc. Other Delaware Main Street towns plan to conduct the Business Owner Survey in the near future to better understand the needs of their business owners and engage them in strategies to assist all downtown businesses. A few examples of the survey’s findings and recommendations are listed below:

FINDING: 

  • Approximately 39% of businesses are unsure of their post-lease plans.

Recommendations:

  • Recruit one or two trusted volunteers to become “Property Liaisons.”
  • Ask “Property Liaisons” with beginning to systematically develop trusted relationships with business owners and property owners to better understand their future endeavors.  Through this, the local Main Street program has the opportunity to offer guidance and support, helping the business stay or relocate, while being in a position to anticipate vacancy and shape future tenancy. 

FINDINGS:

  • 92% of participating businesses are independently owned.
  • 71% of the participating businesses claim to have a positive current business health status: “Thriving and Expanding” (24%) or “Stable and Sustainable” (47%).
  • Throughout the past three years, participating business owners claim an increase in: foot traffic, customer base, and profit.
  • Of the survey respondents (business owners), 54% of businesses have been operating for more than 10 years. 

Recommendations:

  • Create a welcome packet for prospective business owners.  It should highlight the above findings.
  • Consider asking businesses over 10 years of age to mentor new businesses.

Believing that volunteer development is crucial to the success of Main Street programs, Maroselli next focused on creating a Volunteer Manual. With volunteerism dwindling in many communities, the implementation of a more deliberate process could help Main Street engage new volunteers. The customizable manual Maroselli developed includes policies and procedures for a sustainable volunteer program, including volunteer recruitment, development, management, and recognition. In addition, it also provides nine volunteer forms, including Sample Volunteer Descriptions, Adolescent Application, Interview Questions, Volunteer Media Release, and a Volunteer Time Sheet. Communities can customize the manual to suit their organization, while creating a more structured, efficient volunteer development process. Visit our Solution Center and download a copy of this Volunteer Manual, along with instructions to help you customize it for your community. Maroselli recommends that a volunteer be recruited to fill the position of “Volunteer Administrator,” and, working in concert with the Program Manager, oversee this process. 

Throughout the year, the Downtown Delaware VISTAs effectively worked within the DEDO, Delaware Main Street, and AmeriCorps VISTA missions to create meaningful, sustainable projects that encouraged the spirit of entrepreneurism, supported volunteerism, and actively sought to alleviate community poverty. Several of these pilot projects are structured so that their work plans, templates, and processes can easily be adapted by other communities. All projects have been effectively handed off to the local programs, but nicely leave behind each VISTA’s handprint.