Brenda Billman-Arndt, Brainerd's Destination Downtown Business Challenge winner, no longer has to dream to open her own boutique.

All she has to do it turn the key on the front door of her Laurel Street business to see how far that vision traveled from plan to product line. The Purple Fern opened last week in downtown Brainerd some seven months, nearly to the day, after Billman-Arndt learned she won the contest to help establish a viable business in the city's downtown.

The Brainerd High School grad dreamed about turning her soap making hobby into a full-fledged business but she said the 2017 contest gave her push to put thought into motion. After having the ideas revolve mainly in her imaginary eye, coming to the store and turning the sign to say "open" was a remarkable experience.

"I was pretty darn nervous," Billman-Arndt said. "I didn't sleep the night before. ... I'm so excited and so happy."

Her first customer was downtown Brainerd advocate Bruce Buxton.

After winning the grand prize of $50,000 with assistance aimed to successfully launch her startup, Billman-Arndt worked with a supportive team on everything from business logo to store layout. It's still a work in progress, Billman-Arndt said, noting she is continuing to add product and classes, and is adding the events for children and adults to create their own custom soaps and gifts. Classes are expected to start next month and ramp up in the fall and winter.

Billman-Arndt's vision for the bath boutique was to include all things bath-related and with a strong artisan approach, such as incorporating pottery artists for soap dishes. She's done that. She's incorporated product lines from other small independent entrepreneurs like herself after careful selections and a strong desire to include other local businesses. B&B FarmCo from Pequot Lakes is one of the product lines on her shelves.

She makes soaps using a mixture of ingredients with olive oil, goat's milk and essential oils and natural colorants. She said the soap-making process allows creativity to flourish, including using porter beer from local Roundhouse and Jack Pine breweries.

Billman-Arndt said the store turned out beautifully and while not everything is together yet, it will come in time and give customers something new to look forward to seeing with future visits.

On the store's second day, Billman-Arndt was already getting repeat business. On Thursday, May 18, customers were coming through the door regularly.

"It's a great little gift shop," said Kelly Mogensen after completing her purchase and then being attracted to stop at another display area. Mogensen said Purple Fern would be her go-to shop to get a gift for any number of family members in her life.

Standing at the checkout counter her father built for the store, Billman-Arndt said she was still nervous on the store's second day. Around her, the details of the store, like incorporating pipes to give the look of bath fixtures to shelving-first displayed in renderings-are being realized. Billman-Arndt's husband translated the design into physical form for the store display. The space, formerly Chet's TV, was gutted and remodeled from flooring to the striking lights overhead. The building's owners, Nick and Joe Phelps, involved Billman-Arndt in the process. The details were numerous, down to deciding where outlets should be installed and where the handmade soap classes would be set up so track lighting would be in the right spot.

Billman-Arndt said everyone was supportive, from the Brainerd Lakes Chamber to the Small Business Development Center at Central Lakes College to the Deluxe Corporation, which helped her with marketing, the logo, gift packaging, signs and is still working on setting up her website. Sign Spot created the sign with her logo on the storefront.

"I can't say enough," She said. "It's been really awesome actually."

Billman-Arndt continued to work full time at Grand View Lodge in Nisswa through February and then moved to part time. While renovations transformed the store space, she was busy making soap at home, planning for the layout and researching products she wanted to carry.

Customer Tanya Leskey from Brainerd was one of the shoppers drawn to the new store. Leskey said she appreciated the work of small independent shop owners like Billman-Arndt.

"The more that this part of Brainerd is getting revitalized, that's just exciting," Leskey said. "The more we can do to support that I think is important."

About the Destination Downtown contest

The community effort behind the inaugural Destination Downtown offered a prize package valued 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.

Three finalists 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 where there were 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.

The other two finalists, Bill and Lisa Desrocher and Ed Mattson were offered a prize package of $10,000 each.

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 www.brainerddispatch.comfor a link at the bottom of the Dispatch webpage.