Rural Voice tackles outstate entrepreneurship

by Nikki Knisley

[email protected]

A panel discussion focused on the rural entrepreneurship experience, moderated by none other than MPR’s Kerri Miller, on September 20 in St Joseph’s revealed a range of small business experiences.

Part of the Rural Voice series, Miller approached her longtime collaborator, Theresa McFarland, with the idea of ​​figuring out what it takes to prepare a 21st-century workforce in rural Minnesota.

Three of the Minnesota foundations of the initiative, the South, North and Central Minnesota branches, have partnered to support the series and each hosted their own town hall event. Other sponsors with representatives present at the St. Joseph discussion included Compeer Financial, a cooperative, member-owned agricultural credit system.

State Senator Aric Putnam and St. Joseph Mayor Rick Schultz were on hand to advocate specifically for St. Joseph and rural central Minnesota in general as a travel destination for others who visit, live and want to start their businesses.

(Due to the redistribution, St. Joseph is now in State Senate District 14, which the District of Putnam represents. He faces Republican challenger Tama Theis to retain his seat.)

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City Hall took place at the Krewe Restaurant in downtown St. Joseph, itself the result of the experience and creativity of chefs Mateo Mackbee and Erin Lucas. Nicknamed “Krewe’s krü” on the restaurant’s website, they all shared bits and pieces of their experiences of getting into rural entrepreneurship. “I was so surprised at how quickly I was questioned and doubted when I shared our vision,” Lucas said, “but now my dad works for us so everything was fine.”

Mackbee explained her vision as focusing on food, starting in the garden, going to the table, and then sharing that process with youth. He said the aim is to cultivate a love of the country, food and cooking in children. “That’s the real goal. The restaurant is just the means.”

Key drivers of the rural entrepreneurship renaissance were a low cost of living but a high quality of life, an abundance of practical and financial support, including mentoring, and easier access to these supports. Significant challenges were also recognized, including access to finance, particularly for women and people of color, knowledge of important community networking relationships, and the smaller scale of rural life in managing family and neighborhood relationships.

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When Miller asked her audience about the top barriers people face when considering relocating to rural communities to start their businesses, Mark Koch, Compeer’s Financial Officer, was very clear in his response: “Bank financing is a high, high barrier to entry to get in the game,” he explained.

Stories of “creative finance” were shared by many of the veteran business owners in the room. Kevin Doyle, owner of Forest Mushrooms, shared the story of how he mortgaged the house in 1985 to start his business. “It was actually her house,” Doyle said when asked about the risk.

Mark Varilek, President of the Initiative Foundation of Central Minnesota, described how they are intentionally positioned to work with rural entrepreneurs. He spoke briefly about the foundation’s gap loan program. It can provide “gap funding,” the difference between the amount the bank will fund and the amount required to get your small business up and running. It is also available at comparable commercial interest rates.

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“Initiative Foundation of Central Minnesota knows exactly where the need is,” said Bob McClintick, IFCM’s director of marketing and communications. He noted that the Initiative Foundation also has the flexibility to implement programs tailored to those needs.

When the town hall was shut down, Mayor Schultz held the last pitch of the evening. “We believe in and trust in ourselves (at St. Joseph)… and we want you to come to our city.”

The town hall ended with a reception featuring key lime squares by chef Larsen from the Flour and Flower kitchen.

To learn more about the Rural Voice project, go to

Rural Entrepreneurship
MPR’s Kerri Miller listens during the Rural Voice town hall as rural entrepreneurship is discussed September 20 at the Krewe Restaurant in St Joseph.
A night out with neighbors from Central Minnesota
Mark Varilek, President of the Initiative Foundation of Central Minnesota, enjoys a conversation September 20 at City Hall from Rural Voice hosted by Kerri Miller, taking place at the Krewe Restaurant in St. Joseph.