• The 2021 Creating Entrepreneurial Communities conference was Sept. 29-30 in Hannibal.
    The 2021 Creating Entrepreneurial Communities conference was Sept. 29-30 in Hannibal.

HANNIBAL, Mo. – Last September, more than 70 people gathered in Hannibal for the 2021 Creating Entrepreneurial Communities conference.

Creating Entrepreneurial Communities Conference was designed to help policymakers in smaller communities develop competitive and cooperative economic ecosystems, according to Krauch, northeast regional director for University of Missouri Extension.

Organizers included Lisa Doster and Stephen Mukembo, CESs in community economic development for Scotland and Johnson counties, respectively; Sarah Low, director of ExCEED; Jackie Spainhower, CES in community economic development, Harris County; Hannah McClure, Community Development program coordinator; Amie Breshears, CES in ag and environment, Benton County; Denice Ferguson, field specialist in ag and environment; and Mike Krauch, NE regional director.

Presenters included keynote speaker Andrew McCrea, a northwestern Missouri farmer, broadcaster and author of the 2019 book, The Total Town Makeover: Rethinking Business, Community, and Home in Small Town America. In breakout sessions, local museums, coffee shops, restaurants and theaters hosted business owners and MU Extension representatives to share experiences and advice. Vice Chancellor for Extension and Engagement Marshall Stewart delivered closing remarks.

In addition to helping pay for meals and speakers fees, sponsors made a concerted effort to promote the conference. That helped make the event a success: The 2022 conference is set for Sept. 21-22 in Hermann.

The idea for the conference came from Krauch when he and others from MU Extension visited a similar event several years ago organized by Michigan State University. MSU Extension started its CEC conferences in 2007 with the goal of building up smaller communities with new businesses. In 2012, the focus shifted from creating entrepreneurial communities to connecting entrepreneurial communities. Nebraska, Kansas, South Dakota, Mississippi, Wisconsin, Indiana and Minnesota have launched similar programs.

In parts of Missouri, there is a stark contrast between the economic, educational and health prosperity in the largest cities and rural communities. Fixing economic inequity in the Show-Me State starts with fostering the ecosystems that can create wealth in our smaller communities, not just our largest ones, says Krauch. At the center of those economic drivers is an entrepreneurial spirit and the right mix of pro-consumer and pro-business policymaking.

The effects of the pandemic have hit rural areas the most. Between 2019 and 2020, the value of Missouri’s primary exports dropped nearly 5%, according to recent census data. This hurts more rural communities, where most top commodities like crops and manufactured transportation are produced. In Missouri’s largest cities, where the domestic service industries support more of the economy, recovery will come more swiftly with the return to work, as analysis of 2020 census data shows.

“If there is anything that we have learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, including the supply chain bottlenecks we are experiencing, communities need to find alternative ways to be more self-reliant if they are to become resilient during economic downturns,” said Mukembo.

Keynote speaker McCrea has spent a considerable amount of time exploring the country’s successful small towns. Each had performed similar “makeovers” to their communities, ultimately building sustainable and efficient economies while developing a vibrant culture. During his presentation, McCrea shared what can be done in Missouri communities to achieve the same success and where to find the money to do so.

McCrea has observed that communities that get groups of positively minded, yet realistic, individuals who set reachable but lofty goals end up achieving the most success. The key for these groups is to focus on the younger generations.

“When you are a small town off the interstate, the younger people are crucial resources for starting and growing businesses,” McCrea said. “When you grow a business in your hometown, you are much less likely to leave,”

McCrea pointed to examples like Shickley, Nebraska, and St. John’s, Michigan – communities that have seen immense growth because of these strategies. Shickley has set up endowments to raise funds for the creation of amenities that attract young families. These families become the backbone of a blossoming economic ecosystem. The town hosts annual entrepreneurship camps for the middle school students in Shickley, spurring an interest in business creation. Shickley’s adults continually stoke their children’s entrepreneurial spirit.

“Reaching out to recent graduates, or people who call the town home, and inviting them back is also important,” McCrea said. In the case of St. John’s, Douglas Cook and his son-in-law Troy Bancroft brought their large fertilizer business, AgroLiquid, back to their hometown of less than 10,000 people to set up a brand-new headquarters. This company was built in a single generation and is now a large commercial hub for St. John’s, even hosting “AgroLiquid University,” a class that helps aspiring and current farmers learn to effectively manage the chemicals they use in their soil.

Imagine what good could be done if Missouri small towns employed these tactics. “Of course, we want to attract business now,” said McCrea, But this longer-term approach can help ensure more durable economic development results.

The Creating Entrepreneurial Communities Conference was an opportunity to incubate such ideas. Local businesses, museums, coffee shops, restaurants and theaters alike hosted business owners and MU Extension representatives to share personal experiences and advice with the conference’s attendees. For instance, the Mississippi Marketplace addressed broadband access and e-commerce with State Rep. Louis Riggs, R-Hannibal. Hannibal Arts Council Executive Director Michael Gaines discussed the influence the arts can have on positive economic growth. The Depot hosted Andrew Van Leuven, a MU postdoctoral fellow in agricultural and applied economics, to talk about revitalizing main streets and downtown areas in small towns, starting with keeping shops open and occupied.

“The small communities in Missouri kind of get left behind. When people think about how to solve economic problems or create jobs, they think about how to do it in Kansas City or St. Louis, not towns like Memphis,” Krauch said. The annual CEC conference is just a small piece of the recovery puzzle, helping to empower communities with the tools to diversify their investment, build up local business and foster environments that attract businesses and workers.

Mukembo noted that the conference also brings tangible economic benefits to the host community: “They benefit from the positive advertisement and recognition of what they are doing right to support entrepreneurs, and they learn from attendees about areas of improvement to continue to grow their local economy.”

MU Extension plan to host these conferences in a different region of the state each year, providing relevant advice to business owners, community planners and policymakers that they can take back to their communities, said Hannah McClure who, as MU Extension community development program coordinator, helped organize Missouri’s first CEC conference. McClure also mentioned that rural communities in Missouri and elsewhere in the United States are yet to recover from the recession so a vibrant entrepreneurship ecosystem and small business-friendly environment are a good alternative to traditional industry.

Sponsors from the northeast region provided financial support for and helped promote this first annual CEC conference in Missouri: the Mark Twain Regional Council of Governments, Northeast Power, the Northeast Missouri Regional Planning Commission, The Hannibal Regional Economic Development Council and Ignite.