A new initiative to foster small businesses in South St. Petersburg has been a success, with 95% of the initial participants completing the program, but city officials have identified areas for improvement.
The South St. Petersburg CRA (Community Redevelopment Area) Microfund Program awarded $440,000 to 53 participants. In addition to much-needed capital, 96% said their business acumen improved through his four-month course, which ends in September.
City Council members who make up the Economic and Workforce Development Committee heard Thursday about the program's successes and growing pains. Small Business Liaison Manager Tracy Smith expressed his excitement for the first group.
“This is a map of who provided the funding and look at how the funding was evenly distributed within the CRA,” Smith said. “I couldn't ask for anything more.”
St. Pete Greenhouse managed the program, providing sales, marketing and management education for what Mayor Ken Welch previously called a “game changer” for CRA entrepreneurs. The first cohort included 28 brick-and-mortar and 11 home-based businesses, four early-stage startups, nine child care companies, and one company headquartered in a shared commercial space.
Smith, Greenhouse co-manager, noted that program officials began evaluating their efforts before the program ended. We plan to implement revisions and strengthen our communication strategy ahead of the application round on December 2nd.
Mr Smith stressed that the first batch was a pilot that had “never been done before”. He said there were challenges as the 53 managers (the program started with 56) had different plans and knowledge levels.
“We knew we needed to evaluate that process and see what needed to be tweaked and improved…” says Smith. “Even as we were launching our first program, we were already working on what we wanted to do better next time.”
The evaluation process included two focus groups with mentors and navigators. Smith also held 26 weekly team review meetings.
In addition, program officials conducted a survey to assess effectiveness. All 53 alumni and 15 internal employees responded.
Smith said 90% of respondents would recommend the program to a friend. However, only 40% said they took advantage of the technical assistance provided.
“We missed the boat on this one, and we didn't have to,” Smith said. “The next cohort will require training to receive the grant.”
Mr Smith also acknowledged there had been “confusion and anxiety” among applicants and administrators about the start of the program. He said the application period will be open for 30 days, not on a first-come, first-served basis, and will accept all eligible people until the program reaches its capacity of 45 people.
He said program officials hope to offer three cohorts totaling 135 entrepreneurs in 2024. They increased the original quota from 45 to 55 people, but Smith said it was difficult.
Many survey respondents called for improved communication and a simplified application process. City Councilwoman Deborah Figgs-Sanders said she has heard similar concerns.
Mr Smith said these efforts are ongoing and a waiting list will also be introduced. “We're planning for three cohorts, so we want to continue to admit people and keep that list available,” she explained.
“We may need to remove people from the waiting list for whatever reason,” Smith continued. “But we will be able to communicate.”
She said increasing networking time is also often suggested. As part of the program's curriculum, participants spent an evening learning how to interact and exchange ideas with colleagues.
“(Networking) isn't just showing up in a room and handing out your business card,” Smith added. “We need to find ways to bring them together more.”
Other respondents said officials need a deeper understanding of their initial business knowledge. Smith explained that many clients lack basic expertise and documentation.
The program provides that education, but future applications will also include questions about financial and marketing plans, she said. However, Smith said the information will help guide program leaders and navigators, and she stressed that it will not affect acceptance.
The program's website includes “extensive” information about the upcoming cohort. Smith said he will post more specific details in the coming weeks.
“Although it was clear that this microgrant was a first for Greenhouse, staff did everything they could to answer questions and defuse the reactions that naturally arise from a new endeavor.”Anonymous survey response one of them said.
For more information about the South St. Pete CRA Microfund Program, please visit our website here.