In too many communities, Main Street isn’t what it once was.
Cities and towns across the United States have watched their Main Streets become increasingly less relevant over the last few decades. First, it was the suburbs and big box stores that drew shoppers away from downtown. Then Amazon came along and the retail apocalypse began.
One community in West Virginia used entrepreneurial education to reverse that trend.
In 2018 Wheeling Heritage, a catalyst organization in Wheeling, West Virginia, embarked on a new revitalization strategy for their Main Street. The organization channels investments and funding into downtown Wheeling, where it supports businesses that occupy the city’s many historic sites. This support makes the preservation of the city’s architecture possible.
In the past four years, over 2,000 new jobs have been created and Wheeling’s city building vacancy rate has been reduced by half.
One of the organization’s programs is a crowdfunding event known as “Show of Hands.” During the event, new local businesses pitch their ideas to the community, which votes for their favorite. The winning business receives donations from attendees and supporters. Roughly $5,000 is awarded to local entrepreneurs during the event.
The success of the Show of Hands event led Alex Weld, Project and Outreach Manager at Wheeling Heritage to identify a new opportunity to support Wheeling’s entrepreneurs and strengthen the city’s Main Street. Like many rural communities, small towns, and midsize cities, Wheeling has abundant entrepreneurial potential. In fact, the myth of large coastal cities as the sole hubs of entrepreneurial talent is just that: A myth.
Communities like Wheeling are home to talented, resourceful potential entrepreneurs who are often required to create their own opportunities. Remaining in smaller cities can often mean creating the path that will allow you to stay and thrive.
That’s the reason Alex Weld and the team at Wheeling Heritage reached out to CO.STARTERS.
“People don’t usually automatically identify themselves as entrepreneurs,” Weld said. “They think they have business ideas but that entrepreneurs are techy people who have creative startup ideas. Those are words they don’t associate with themselves. The real problem is that they don’t have a network of like-minded people around them yet, and the shared mindset with others they meet in CO.STARTERS is so important.”
In other words, Wheeling and cities like Wheeling are filled with people who can change an entire community by creating economic opportunity for themselves and others.
“Entrepreneurs and small businesses are the engine of our region’s economic growth,” said Valerie Piko, Small Business Coordinator at the Regional Economic Development Partnership (RED) in Wheeling. “The work our team, CO.STARTERS, and Wheeling Heritage has done to drive innovation while preserving our city’s historical buildings is exactly the type of economic development that will continue to create opportunities for the folks we serve.”
After partnering with CO.STARTERS, that is exactly what happened in Wheeling.
The program helped Sarah Lydick, a classically trained chef in Wheeling, start Sarah’s on Main. CO.STARTERS gave her the confidence, knowledge, and tools she needed to turn her talent and passion into a restaurant housed in a formerly under-used historical building. Sarah’s on Main has been an enormous success—and while Sarah Lydick is one of the program’s most successful graduates, she isn’t the only one. Dozens of starters have graduated, including one entirely female cohort.
Like many rural communities, small towns, and midsize cities, Wheeling has abundant entrepreneurial potential.
The entire community has also experienced the positive impact of entrepreneurial education. In the past four years, over 2,000 new jobs have been created and Wheeling’s city building vacancy rate has been reduced by half. In 2019 Main Street America recognized Wheeling Heritage with the “Great American Main Street Award.”
“Wheeling, West Virginia is a shining example of how quickly entrepreneurship can make a community relevant again,” said Enoch Elwell, founder and CEO of CO.STARTERS. “It has been so exciting to see the impact starters are having on Wheeling’s Main Street. It is a phenomenon we’ve seen over and over across the country. Especially in 2021, education for entrepreneurs plays a critical role in successful economic development strategies.”
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