Main Street: Paved with Opportunity

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Imagine if every downtown had an entrepreneurial training program that educated teenagers on the theoretical aspects of entrepreneurism and encouraged them to create and operate an incubator business right in their own downtowns. Could entrepreneurism be the way for America to get back on its feet economically, as well as a way to strengthen ailing downtowns? If a pilot program proves as dynamic as that envisioned by Milton’s Main Street manager, Pennsylvania downtowns—and ultimately Main Streets throughout the entire nation—may become the training ground for America’s next generation of entrepreneurs.    

George Venios, manager of The Improved Milton Experience (TIME), viewed the impending five-year review of his Main Street program as an opportunity to address critical questions: what has the program accomplished, and what issues are left to tackle?

Inspired by Milton’s Jungle Café Teen Center—a center designed, operated, and maintained by teens—Venios  wanted to bring youth into the Main Street fold, and teach them to become entrepreneurial. His hope was to engage teens and build their bond with downtown as much as it was to create new opportunities for them, including the chance to create an incubator business. Thus, the idea was born to start a junior Main Street program with a twist.

Dubbed “TIME for Teens,” the program incorporates a Milton history curriculum with downtown improvement projects. Set up as a committee of the Main Street organization, the group plans its projects under the supervision of the board of directors. So far, the teens have designed and constructed a historic Milton Walking Tour and helped create the Milton Model Train Museum. What else, Venios wondered, was possible?

“The Jungle Café Teen Center arose from the need to address social issues rather than a need to develop programming for them,” says Venios, who has been the volunteer director of the center for 22 years. “But to take that idea a step further, if we can engage teens in their downtowns and teach them entrepreneurial skills, they might come back after college—not necessarily to Milton, but to the region.”  

Taking a Regional Approach

As Venios started fleshing out his idea to teach young adults business skills and give them opportunities to become entrepreneurs, his research only turned up a handful of programs aimed at tapping teen talent. Realizing that there was a need for such a program beyond his town, he began envisioning an entrepreneurial program that could jumpstart downtowns in the region, the state, and, potentially, throughout the nation.

To get feedback on the regional potential for his idea, Venios connected with regional communities and economic development organizations through the Greater Susquehanna Valley Chamber of Commerce’s (GSVCC) Downtown Affiliates committee, a forum for regional managers working in downtowns and Elm Street neighborhoods (Main Street’s companion residential-focused program in Pennsylvania). They immediately wanted to get on board.

The Downtown Affiliates committee has met weekly for several months, trying to shape this new regional initiative. They took inspiration from both the Pittsburgh’s Youth Enterprise Zone and Youth On Main Street developed by the Main Street program in Bridgeton, New Jersey (see the Jan./Feb. 2010 issue of Main Street Now).

Ultimately, they decided to name the junior Main Street program T-BIZ, or Teen Business Innovation Zone. T-BIZ would create a training opportunity that would enable teenagers to create and operate an incubator business with a downtown storefront or, in the case of a technology-oriented business, a virtual storefront on the Web.

Each community could approach running a T-BIZ differently. The parameters for participation are simple: each T-BIZ program must create an after-school classroom curriculum that covers all aspects of the Main Street approach and entrepreneurism. Topics and skills to be included range from creating a business plan, cost of goods/gross profit, income statements, return on investment, marketing/advertising to negotiation, writing checks, savings/checking accounts, budgeting, loans, and investment. Additional training could include retail, entertainment, restaurants, hospitality, and more.

The response from stakeholders, including GSVCC president and CEO Charlie Ross, regional managers, and visitors bureau directors, has been positive. “T-BIZ came about from the bottom up, in terms of community development,” says Ross. “It’s going to work well, simply because of that fact. It’s a terrific idea.” 

The GSVCC has dedicated its subsidiary 501(c)3, the Central Susquehanna Valley School and Business Partnership, to help get the program up and running and evaluate participants once it’s operational. “T-BIZ will need technical help and support as it expands beyond Milton,” says Ross. “The partnership’s 501(c)3 status gives it the flexibility to attract grant monies and donations, hold participating downtowns accountable, and at the same time provide support services for T-BIZ.”

Networking the Idea

Seeking input and recommendations, Venios and the T-BIZ Steering Committee presented the concept to state officials, including Pennsylvania Downtown Center Executive Director Bill Fontana and Elm Street Coordinator Melissa Williams of the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development. They helped take this idea to Sunbury, Selinsgrove, Danville, and Mifflinburg—other Pennsylvania towns that agreed to start local T-Biz programs.

“We have a generation of young people who have limited experience with the traditional business districts in their communities,” says Fontana. “They don’t understand the [downtown’s] history and the important role it plays in impacting the vibrancy of the local economy. When young people are disengaged in the revitalization of their communities, their first response is to move elsewhere because [they perceive] the community doesn’t meet their needs. Anything we can do to get young people more involved in the future of their communities, and in particular their business districts, is extremely valuable—not only for the revitalization of the local community, but for the future of the state. Hopefully, it will keep some of the best and brightest in Pennsylvania.”

An advisory committee, composed of regional managers and representatives from school boards and economic development organizations, is committed to turning the original T-BIZ concept into pilot programs. Each community will embark on the project from a slightly different angle, tying in to existing strengths and relationships. Selinsgrove, for example, will work with Economics Pennsylvania. Sunbury will team up with Junior Achievement. Other participating economic development organizations include Future Business Leaders of America and Keystone Innovation Zone.

“We want to give each community as much independence as we can; each has a different culture. What makes kids tick in one community is different from another,” Venios explains. “Everyone asks us, how do you get five diverse communities to work together? So far, so good.”

Getting Started

Through August 2012, the T-BIZ Steering Committee will seek feedback from all five Main and Elm Street program boards before moving forward. “We haven’t asked for a complete buy-in of the program,” says Venios. “Creating the incubator storefront is a major commitment, and it can come later. What is required is creating a junior main street program and entrepreneur training for kids.”

The economic development arm linked to the Milton program is being overseen by the Central Pennsylvania Chamber President and CEO Maria Culp and Keystone Innovation Zone Director Kelly O’Brien Gavin. Last January, Gavin began working with 12 teenagers who operate the Jungle Café in a pre-pilot phase. “We’re teaching them how to write a business plan for their final project, but they are putting their learning into practice immediately with the current Jungle Café entertainment business,” says Gavin. “They are evaluating what they are currently doing versus what they need to do to make it a profitable business, both to sustain their activities and re-invest profit into the business. This exercise also teaches them practical analytical skills for growth and development of business practices.”

Sixteen-year-old Jeromey Ingram, a junior at Milton H.S., works at the Jungle Café, where he is learning how to track inventory and make the entertainment side of the business profitable. Participation in TIME for Teens has given him a new perspective on his future. “I’m excited to learn more about the business aspect,” says Ingram. “When I get older I can maybe open a business myself, something I never thought about before. We don’t just read about operating a business; we get to work on it ourselves. [Gavin] is teaching us how to spend money to make money. And we’ve learned more about the area we live in, as well as widening our outlook on what’s possible beyond it.”

A press conference was held in March to announce T-BIZ. By June 2012, participating communities will undertake a fund raiser with a goal of raising $30,000 and disbursing the funds equally to each community to cover operational costs for the first year. 

After that, one of the first steps necessary for Venios to take the T-BIZ concept beyond Milton is to recruit student ambassadors. Currently, one committee of 15 people exists in Milton; by the fall of 2012, each community will have a committee of 10 to 25 students in place. Each community will oversee its own T-BIZ program “under the general guidelines of the Affiliates Committee,” says Venios. “Over the summer, we’ll coach the students to teach the T-BIZ concept and encourage them to take on a leadership role with it,” he explains. “They will help develop guidelines and operating principles for each junior Main Street program to empower them as much as we can, right out of the chute.”

Next Steps

During the pilot phase, set to begin in September 2012, student groups will help develop entrepreneur training programs, with the Milton Teen Center serving as a model for other downtown storefronts.
Venios will also oversee creation of a second teen-run, Milton-based business, a property maintenance company. “We own the old firehouse,” he says. “That’s where we keep our lawn maintenance equipment for the parks and walking tour. We can teach kids to create a lawn care and landscaping business and use it as a model for other potential businesses. Maybe we can influence them to do what we are already doing to have a strong downtown.”

A strong downtown is a vital but misunderstood entity, Venios believes.  “A downtown is not just retailers,” he emphasizes. “In Milton, maybe we have 20. Yet we have a list of 120 stakeholders that include a YMCA, churches, attorney offices, fraternal organizations, a car wash, architects, financial services, and insurance companies. It’s not all about retailers. That [kind of thinking] discourages communities and makes them think their downtowns are dead. We want to get that into the heads of our young people—that downtowns are very much alive. And the more kids learn about their downtowns, the more likely they are to support and patronize them.”

By September 2013, T-Biz will reach its model phase, with the goal to have all teen groups up and running. Where the program goes from there is anyone’s guess. “Main Street and Elm Street programs need to be sustainable,” says Venios. “We might have an opportunity to underwrite our programs by having T-BIZ become an income producer. It’s free to the kids, but we can make money by fund raising, by tapping major foundations, and by trademarking the idea and selling it to other communities.”

Fontana concurs. “We’ve been interested in this since George first told us about it,” he says. “We’ll do everything we can to support its growth and development. Already, I’ve informed our board of directors of the [T-BIZ] initiative. York Mayor Kim Bracey immediately wanted a copy of the Power Point presentation George made to us. It’s already had a bit of a spillover effect. Stay tuned to see where it’s headed.”