Not just one, but three twists accompanied the launch of the third and final Destination Downtown Business Challenge.

The business challenge offers entrepreneurs a prize package to help them get the dream of their own business off the ground by offering support and mentors-all aimed at helping them with a successful launch. Assistance comes on nearly every front from creating a business plan to marketing the business, designing a storefront, and choosing a location.

This year, the business challenge will offer each of the three finalists a prize package from the outset. The second twist increased the prize package to $135,000. The grand prize winner will receive a prize package of $65,000, with $35,000 each going to the runners-up.

"It's the biggest and best prize that we've offered to date," said Matt Kilian, Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce president, during the launch party. Kilian made the announcement Thursday, June 20, accompanied by a snare drum roll and assistant placard bearers before a room of about 100 people complete at the newly renovated Brainerd Lofts on Seventh Street.

"So it's a big, big incentive to get your business idea in the running," Kilian said.

Kilian saved the biggest twist for last.

"The public will pick the winner this year," Kilian said. "... This year, the judges will decide the three finalists but you as the community will choose the winner. You will choose the business you want to see in downtown Brainerd and get that $65,000 advantage and the nice part is the other two are coming, too. So we are excited about it."

Widseth Smith Nolting will create two-minute videos so everyone will be able to see a little bit about the finalists and Consolidated Telecommunications Co. is sponsoring the online voting.

"Here's how you can help," Kilian said. "No. 1 spread the word. Help us spread the word to all these would-be entrepreneurs out there and get them into the contest."

The deadline is July 22. Applicants may go to www.downtownbrainerd.org and answer five simple questions.

Secondly, and most importantly, Kilian said the other thing people can do is support the existing businesses in downtown Brainerd.

"That's the foundation we have to build to get to where we want to go," he said.

Contest winners from the previous business challenges offered words of advice to those wondering if they should take the plunge.

"Just do it," said Marie Kirsch, who plans to open her Knotty Pine Bakery at 707 Laurel St. in the Rumbly Hall building, or the former Iron Rail. Kirsch is working with a Housing and Redevelopment Authority grant to redo the facade with full windows and counter seating where customers can have coffee and pie. Kirsch said she is excited to be able to bring that experience back to downtown. Kirsch said if potential applicants have that business idea in mind, maybe one they've thought about for years, they should put the idea forward.

"All the partners with this contest will help guide you through everything to make sure that they are setting you up for success."

Brenda Billman-Arndt, who won the contest's inaugural year, owns and operates the Purple Fern Bath Co. on Laurel Street. Billman-Arndt also assisted and provided a contest applicant's perspective as the business challenge continued.

"Your dreams aren't going to come true if you don't start somewhere and this is a great place to start," Billman-Arndt said.

The simple questions applicants are asked to answer include what their business idea is, their target market, and what they can contribute to downtown. Organizers revamped some of the contest timelines to give applicants more time for intensive business planning. Plans call for a one-week voting period in the fall to decide the winner and the announcement of the grand prize and runners-up on Nov. 21.

Kilian said the story will not end with the final business challenge as the revitalization story will continue.

About the contest

In its first year in 2017, 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. Contest organizers created what they termed Opportunity Square, or four square blocks of downtown Brainerd.

The Destination Downtown contest was inspired by the Small Business Revolution initiative, championed by the Minnesota-based Deluxe Corp. 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 Corp. volunteered $20,000 and a grassroots community initiative started in 2015 fueled by a desire to encourage entrepreneurs and fill vacant storefronts downtown. There were already initiatives to help property owners rehabilitate buildings with grant dollars and private investment was working to transform spaces, but organizers said the business contest brought everything to a new level.

The local business community added $30,000 of value to create the $50,000 prize package that offered resources to help an entrepreneur get started with a goal of giving them advantages to help with first-year success. Some two dozen organizations are involved in the community effort.

The first year of the business challenge contest inspired 49 applications, more than organizers expected. Applicants 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 in a setting not unlike the "Shark Tank" television show.

More than 70 entrepreneurs submitted applications for the 2018 contest with its $50,000 prize package. Three finalists were chosen and a winner named in November.

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.

With a final contest in 2019, the group decided three business challenges were enough and good headway was made through the effort both in encouraging people to reach for their business dreams and drawing the community's attention to opportunities in Brainerd and those existing businesses in the city's core blocks.