Daring to dream: Business challenge seeks downtown Brainerd entrepreneurs

Calling all "someday" entrepreneurial dreamers--the time is now to turn a business idea into a reality in downtown Brainerd. An event Thursday marked the official launch of the Destination Downtown Business Challenge, a contest to find the next g...

A community effort is providing a platform where dreamers can become doers by winning a contest with a value in excess of $50,000 for an entrepreneurial vision to locate a business in downtown Brainerd.

Calling all "someday" entrepreneurial dreamers-the time is now to turn a business idea into a reality in downtown Brainerd.

An event Thursday marked the official launch of the Destination Downtown Business Challenge, a contest to find the next great business idea to add to the more than 50 businesses within the core of downtown. A crowd topping 100 people filled the newly renovated building at 711 Laurel St., a space symbolizing an authentic, "retro-cool" downtown for which community leaders are charting a course.

"What we are trying to do is we are trying to reach someone who doesn't know that their life is about to be changed," said Matt Kilian, Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce president. "Within a year from now, they're going to be a business owner. We think that person is walking around right now, and they're telling their friends and family about their business idea. ... They're a 'someday' person. Well, that day has come, that moment is now."

Beneath the intricately designed original tin ceiling tiles and surrounded by century-old exposed brick in the building renovated by Brainerd natives and brothers Nick and Joe Phelps, Kilian and other business leaders shared the details of a contest promising about $50,000 in in-kind support for whomever judges decide has the best downtown Brainerd business idea.

The Phelps brothers, both of whom now reside in the Twin Cities, said it felt great to be a part of a revitalization effort for the downtown area of their hometown. The contest could capitalize on that trend, Joe Phelps said.


"It's pretty cool," Joe Phelps said. "It's a new way to kind of generate the interest. ... It sounds like the vetting process is really going to find somebody with both a good idea, and a really good business plan."

The building at 711 Laurel St. is rich with downtown Brainerd heritage, having once housed Paul's Shoe Store and the original location for A.W. Research Laboratories. It will soon be home to two new tenants familiar to those in the arts and music scene-the Lakes Area Music Festival and the Crossing Arts Alliance both recently signed leases.

Lisa Jordan, executive director of the Crossing Arts Alliance, said although she's sad to leave the Franklin Arts Center, she's excited they've outgrown that space and will be part of downtown's revitalization. For the Crossing, this is a return to downtown Brainerd.

"Moving down here, we'll be able to serve more people, we'll be able to form new partnerships and kind of get in on the excitement of the renovation of downtown," Jordan said. "We really see it as an opportunity to do more for our community and that's awesome."

The Destination Downtown contest was inspired by the Small Business Revolution initiative, championed by the Minnesota-based Deluxe Corporation. 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.

Two years ago, Deluxe purchased Brainerd business Range, and the area was on the company's radar. Range CEO Paul Niccum said he approached the Brainerd lakes chamber about contributing to a smaller, local effort. The buy-in was swift from Kilian, and soon a variety of other businesses and organizations signed on to offer support to a potential new business-advertising, legal help, architectural design, workforce development and more. The value of the prizes that the winning idea will have access to is an estimated $50,000.

"There's no question that a vital downtown successful for businesses are the backbone that leads to a healthy community," said Don Hickman, vice president for community and workforce development at the Initiative Foundation in Little Falls. The Initiative Foundation is a financial supporter of the contest.

"We're hoping that some entrepreneur, perhaps a young entrepreneur, is going to see this as a vibrant location," Hickman said. "A historic building, the concentrated downtown, is the very kind of asset that appeals to young skilled workers. I don't think it would take much to move Brainerd downtown into becoming a very hip location. We just need that anchor, that buzz, and I hope this contest will lead there."


Brainerd Mayor Ed Menk, who's owned E.L. Menk Jewelers in downtown Brainerd for 43 years, said he saw opportunities with the contest wearing both of his hats-as the city's leader, and as a stalwart member of the business community.

"I've got a great feeling for the downtown and most of us that have worked down here have a great feeling for it," Menk said. "It's time now to see a regeneration of downtown. It's not going to be what it was 20 years ago, but it's going to be something new and exciting."

Menk said downtown Brainerd is in the center of a large area, stretching from McGregor to Wadena, and Longville to Onamia. Between 100,000 and 200,000 people call this area home, Menk said, depending on the time of year. He said downtown Brainerd is filled with solid infrastructure, both the brick-and-mortar and cyber varieties.

"It's a critical mass of people here that can support quality businesses, and that's what we're looking for, quality businesses," Menk said. "I see it enhancing my business, because if I do well they'll do well and if they do well I'll do well. It's a symbiotic relationship. ... Yes, people sit there and say well it's so bad, downtown. I've been down here 43 years. Nuh-uh, it's not bad. It's good."

The winning entry can choose to locate within one of 13 vacancies in the four square blocks of downtown Brainerd the chamber is rebranding as "Opportunity Square."

Kilian said the challenge provided an opportunity for Brainerd to rewrites its script.

"It's about small business. It's about entrepreneurship. It's about those stories of those individuals. But it's also about community," Kilian said. "It's also about recapturing our story in Brainerd, Minnesota. That is at the heart of the Destination Downtown concepts, the business challenge, everyone who's been involved with it. We want to recapture our story. We want to create a new story.

"And let me just tell you that the demise of downtown Brainerd, those rumors are greatly exaggerated. We have momentum down here. We have businesses moving in. We have things happening. We have movers and shakers down here."


Who's eligible?

Interested in taking a shot at the Destination Downtown Business Challenge?

Eligible candidates include brand new startup businesses, small businesses with a second or third location, or pre-existing downtown businesses seeking a significant expansion with a fresh concept, product or service line. Not eligible are businesses wishing to relocate from other communities, or downtown businesses seeking a facelift or other more cosmetic changes.

How it works

• Phase 1-The probe: Answer five questions to convince the judges a business idea has what it takes. Up to 10 entries will advance beyond the first phase. The deadline is July 28.

• Phase 2-The plan: Work with the Small Business Development Center to build a business plan. Choose the desired site of the business in "Opportunity Square." Check credit. Up to three entries will advance beyond the second phase. The deadline is Sept. 8.

• Phase 3-The pitch: Meet with an architect to illustrate a business vision. Work with seasoned executives to fine-tune a pitch. Deliver a "Shark Tank"-style-or "Muskie Tank," as Matt Kilian of the Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce branded the lakes area version-presentation to the judges. This will occur between Oct. 9-15.

• The Big Reveal: Finalists will join more than 400 guests at the Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce's Celebration of Excellence on Nov. 16. The Destination Downtown Business Challenge winner will be announced at the event.


Visit to enter the contest and for information on prizes, downtown business testimonials and more.

Chelsey Perkins is the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch. A lakes area native, Perkins joined the Dispatch staff in 2014. She is the Crow Wing County government beat reporter and the producer and primary host of the "Brainerd Dispatch Minute" podcast.
Reach her at or at 218-855-5874 and find @DispatchChelsey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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