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Destination Downtown finalist: Purple Fern vision creates more than a boutique

Brenda Billman-Arndt is a finalist for the Destination Downtown Brainerd Business Challenge. Renee Richardson / Brainerd Dispatch1 / 4
Purple Fern promises to provide a bath boutique, with all things bath-related. Beyond the retail, plans include offering an experience element as customers create their own soaps. 2 / 4
One of the notable items in Widseth Smith Nolting's renderings of what the store could look like includes bath fixtures as part of the shelving. 3 / 4
With Purple Fern's experience element customers create their own soaps, whether just dropping by the store to do so on a whim or bringing in groups for birthday parties, bridal showers and more.4 / 4

Imagine walking into a downtown boutique and not just buying soaps to give to friends and family, but making them.

It could be on a whim while window shopping or a planned experience bringing family or friends together. That's part of Brenda Billman-Arndt's vision for the business she wants to create called Purple Fern Bath Company. Billman-Arndt is one of three finalists for the Destination Downtown Business Challenge. The winner will be unveiled Thursday at the Brainerd Lakes Chamber's Celebration of Excellence annual dinner.

Billman-Arndt's vision is for a bath boutique, with all things bath-related and with a strong artisan approach, such as incorporating pottery artists for soap dishes.

The Brainerd High School graduate dreamed of owning her own business, but the contest was the spark putting plan into motion.

"The contest definitely gave me the push, without a doubt, it's something I kind of started obviously as a hobby making soap for myself. I've always been a fan of handmade soaps. I've used them my entire adult life I think," she said and smiled. "I love the (soap-making) process and I started making so much I was giving it to friends and family."

Already working full time at Grand View Lodge in Nisswa, Billman-Arndt thought of producing her soap for wholesale. Then she learned about the downtown business contest with its grand prize of $50,000 and assistance to help an entrepreneur locate a business in downtown Brainerd and be successful with the startup. After a few days to think about it, Billman-Arndt entered. Two weeks later, she received a call she made the top 10.

Then began the transition of dream into detail—a business plan, financials—all during the height of a busy summer resort season pushing Billman-Arndt to burn the candle at both ends.

"It's definitely not something I would have even considered doing without the contest," she said. "It pushed me. I'm really happy I've done it all and I am doing it. I've dreamed of having my own business for many, many years. The core of me is an entrepreneur and I'm really excited about this."

Being creative

Billman-Arndt uses a mix of oils such as avocado oil, but olive oil constitutes the bulk of the oil used to create the soap.

"It's really mild and nourishing for your skin," she said. "I use essential oils and natural colorants and it makes for a very moisturising soap."

The process allows creativity to flourish in the mix of ingredients, scents and hues.

She made soap for Roundhouse Brewery using their porter beer to create a brown soap with coffee grounds for exfoliation, scented with patchouli and orange essential oils.

"It just smells amazing," she said. "I'm planning on—over the winter—developing a whole beer line. I'm going to call it the six-pack series and I'm going to use beer from all the local breweries and put together a six pack of soap. That will be really fun. I'm pretty excited to start working on it. For the beer lover and the man in your life, it's a fun, little unique gift I think."

The cold soap-making process Billman-Arndt uses at home takes about an hour using lye and liquid and 200-degree heat. As it cools, the oils are mixed in to create a texture like pudding. Then the mixture is poured into molds. When the process is completed, there is no lye left in the soap and it can be cut into bars. The soap cures about six weeks, creating a hard bar of soap.

"It's really fun," she said. "It's so creative. You can do anything you can dream of with it."

Billman-Arndt plans on teaching soap-making classes at Purple Fern. She'll be teaching a melt-and-pour method that can be taught to children. Cube-sized bits of soap is melted and poured into molds with colors and fragrances added.

"You have your own custom soaps," she said, noting seasonal molds can create skeletons soaps as an example, which can be a fun project for kids. "It's a fun activity for adults and kids alike. It makes a personalized gift and it teaches you a new skill."

A bath boutique

The plan for the bath boutique is to include everything bath-related, Billman-Arndt said, including artisan-designed shower curtains, sea sponges, bath soaps, bath salts, sugar scrubs and bath accessories. Billman-Arndt is working with Canvas Creations for bath-related wall art.

"I would like to work with local artisans as much as possible," she said.

As far as the locating a business in downtown, Billman-Arndt grew up in Brainerd. After two decades in the Twin Cities, she returned to Brainerd about four years ago to be closer to family.

"I've talked to my parents about downtown a lot," she said. "When they were kids, downtown was absolutely the center of the community. ... They even said they bought their first car downtown. They both worked downtown. When I was a kid, you'd go to the Paramount Theater. I remember waiting, standing around the corner to see 'Return of the Jedi.' We used to go shopping downtown. It changed over the years as everyone knows. I really am personally vested in seeing it revitalized again. It would be really exciting to be part of that and see it be a destination people are clamoring to go to for the shopping, dining and just experience."

The three finalists

• Brenda Billman-Arndt's Purple Fern Bath Company seeks to provide more than homemade soaps and bath accessories, offering to create a destination to make them.

• Lisa and Bill Desrocher are behind a plan for a microdistillery, or a tasting room, that offers to create an experience not unlike an upscale coffee shop atmosphere but with spirits.

• Ed Mattson's vision to expand on the Last Turn Saloon and Eatery is to create a draw for downtown Brainerd to host events, offer a brew pub and expanded restaurant.

About the Destination Downtown contest

The community effort behind Destination Downtown is offering 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—Front and Maple streets to the north and south and Sixth and Eighth streets to the east and west.

The final three were picked from a field of 49 applicants who responded to the business contest, looking to bring a new or expanded business to the city's core. The trio of businesses represent a combination of retail and experience-based attractions to add to the city.

To enter, applicants were asked to answer five questions this summer and from there, the entrepreneurs were whittled down until three remained standing. The winning applicant from the final three will be revealed Thursday at the Brainerd Lakes Chamber's Celebration of Excellence dinner and meeting.

Hear the finalists' stories on the DispatchCast

All three of the Destination Downtown Business Challenge finalists stopped by the podcast studio at the Brainerd Dispatch to share their ideas with host Chelsey Perkins.

The podcast is available on iTunes, Google Play, Amazon Alexa, Stitcher, Podbean—just search for DispatchCast—or go to for a link at the bottom of the Dispatch webpage.