County enters entrepreneurial fray, offers cash and loans to start-ups

David Fettig | Managing Editor

Published July 1, 1991  | July 1991 issue

If entrepreneurs are defined by their willingness to try something new and to take risks, then perhaps Eau Claire County in Wisconsin deserves entrepreneurial status.

Since 1986, Eau Claire County has been the only local government in the country to award cash prizes and zero-interest loans to qualified entrepreneurs. The awards are made through a competition called "Creating Your Own Business," a program that judges potential companies on the basis of submitted business plans.

The competition was initiated by the Eau Claire County Industrial Development Corp. (ECCIDC), along with technical and managerial advice from the Chippewa Valley Technical College and the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire Small Business Center. Officials hope to accomplish a number of goals through the program, for example, to enhance community spirit and to educate the business community about the importance of planning—but the primary objective is job creation. "The creation of new jobs from within the community is the bottom line measurement of success or failure," says Craig Carlson, executive director of the ECCIDC.

Since its inception, the competition has awarded cash and loans to companies that have created 48 jobs in Eau Claire County. All previous winners, except one, are still in business and there have been no defaults on loans, Carlson says.

In order to qualify for the business plan competition, entrepreneurial hopefuls must be working toward the manufacture of a product or toward the creation of a service-oriented business directly related to manufacturing. First-place winners receive a $1,000 prize and second-place winners get $500; if the business is initiated or significantly expanded six months after the award, the winning companies become eligible for zero-interest loans of up to $10,000.

"I was a young punk, just out of college," says Dean Hansen, a 1987 winner and owner of Asian Specialty Foods Co. "Winning gave me credibility. I would not have five employees and be doing over $2 million a year in sales if I hadn't won the contest. It's as simple as that." Hansen began his business by incubating duck eggs and selling them to food stores in Asian communities; his company now wholesales more than 800 oriental food products.

While the ECCIDC provided initial funding for the competition, grant money was soon supplied by other agencies and private companies, including Wal-Mart, which operates a store in Eau Claire.

Carlson says he is surprised that other counties or municipalities haven't created similar entrepreneurial competitions, and he has written an article in a national journal to encourage local governments to consider Eau Claire's plan.

While Eau Claire-area officials consider their business plan competition a success—this year, a record six cash prizes were awarded—they don't intend to rest on their laurels. Plans are under way for the creation of a new business start-up program. This one would be entitled "Be Your Own Boss," and would provide business skill development, business plan preparation and seed capital for dislocated workers in Chippewa, Dunn and Eau Claire counties. The new plan depends on a proposed grant from the U.S. Department of Labor and was inspired by the closure of Eau Claire's Uniroyal plant and the loss of 1,300 jobs.