An event that has garnered more involvement from entrepreneurs and those with a dream of their own business than organizers ever expected in previous years will give budding business proprietors one last opportunity.
The community effort behind the contest incorporates business leaders, developers, builders, educators and economic development specialists and was designed to give budding entrepreneurs an option to pursue their dreams and build on a resurgent downtown Brainerd. This year, organizers promise some twists in the contest with its largest prize package to date and all of that will be announced at the launch party.
A Destination Downtown Launch Part is planned from 4-5 p.m. Thursday, June 20 in downtown Brainerd, 217 S. Seventh St. The event is free and open to the public. The launch party is in the newly renovated former Downtown Mall that also has a new name-The Lofts. The building will be open for tours at the event. Free appetizers and beverages will be served as well.
This year's contest offers an even bigger prize package worth $65,000 in what organizers report will be the final year for the Destination Downtown Business Challenge.
Past winners and finalists
Brenda Bilman-Arndt and Marie Kirsch were the contests' first two winners in 2017 and 2018.
Purple Fern Bath Co. won the inaugural Destination Downtown Business Challenge in 2017.
Billman-Arndt's vision to create a retail store she believes will draw people to downtown Brainerd gained the support from the contest judges. The winner was revealed before a record crowd of more than 500 gathered for the annual Brainerd Lakes Chamber Celebration of Excellence award dinner in November at Cragun's Resort on Gull Lake.
By the following spring, Purple Fern opened on Laurel Street in downtown Brainerd. The business offers homemade soaps and bath accessories and has classes and parties giving people a chance to create their own.
The other finalists were:
• Lisa and Bill Desrocher brought a background in business management and sales and flood science and product development to their plan to create a business plan for a microdistillery, or a tasting room, that offers to create an experience not unlike an upscale coffee shop atmosphere but with spirits. The Desrochers are continuing with that goal in Brainerd.
• Ed Mattson had a vision to expand on the Last Turn Saloon and Eatery, a storied business he bought in 2016, to create a draw for downtown Brainerd to host events, offer a brew pub and expanded restaurant. Mattson purchased the building next to the Last Turn and recently opened it as The Vice with a sports bar and games.
In 2018, baker Kirsch won the top $50,000 prize with her goal of creating a downtown bakery inspired by her grandmother Joy Potthoff. Her plans to bring the Knotty Pine Bakery to a storefront are ongoing this spring with a downtown location now established as a the future bakery's home on Laurel Street.
The other finalists in 2018 were:
• Mark Nesheim, owner of Wings Cafe at the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport, had a business plan to create a homestyle bakery, catering company and diner he named Sourdough Sam's Cook Shanty.
• Lindsay Topp, owner of BluPaisley Boutique in Nisswa, had a business plan to expand her boutique with clothing to celebrate women of all sizes, accessories, jewelry and gifts into downtown Brainerd. Topp outlined the boutique's style as effortless and eclectic, bohemian and confident.
About the contest
In its first year, the community effort behind Destination Downtown offered a value in excess of $50,000 to help the winning entrepreneur locate a business in downtown Brainerd with support for success. Contest organizers created what they termed Opportunity Square, or four square blocks of downtown Brainerd with 13 empty storefronts.
The Destination Downtown contest was inspired by the Small Business Revolution initiative, championed by the Minnesota-based Deluxe Corporation. A few years ago, Deluxe purchased Brainerd business Range.
The "Main Street" contest searches for "America's most inspiring small towns," the company's website states. The winning town receives a $500,000 revitalization effort. Brainerd didn't win last year, but it attracted attention by receiving more than 3,000 nominations.
Deluxe Corporation volunteered $20,000 and a grassroots community initiative started in 2015. The local business community added $30,000 of value to create the $50,000 prize and offered resources to help an entrepreneur to give them every advantage for first-year success.
The business challenge contest inspired 49 applications, which were pared down in stages until there were three finalists. After working with a coach and putting together a business plan and financials, the finalists made presentations before the 12 judges.
More than 70 entrepreneurs submitted applications for the 2018 contest with its $50,000 prize to help start a business in downtown Brainerd and gain help from advisers to create a business plan.
All entrants were given an opportunity to enroll for free in the "Going into Business for Yourself" class offered at Central Lakes College. The three-hour class is offered once a month and takes participants through the basics of starting a business, including assessing market potential, business planning and learning about available financial resources.