YAKIMA -- For Milt Geffen and Charlie Card, it made sense to locate their new businesses in small towns.
Geffen, who started Milt's Original Gourmet BBQ Pellets last year, said Grandview was ground zero for the byproduct of wine grapes and hops that flavor his pellets.
Card, a rancher, wanted his Prosser-based solar hot water system business to help neighboring dairies use less propane to heat water for their operations.
"I think it's better for a person trying to start a new business in an area he knows and understands," he said.
While it was natural for Card and Geffen to start their businesses in small towns, those communities are developing strategies to find, cultivate and grow even more businesses from the ground up.
In the last few months, those efforts in Grandview, Sunnyside, Zillah and Tieton have been driven by the Entrepreneurial Friendly Cities Initiative, a program of New Vision, Yakima County's economic development arm.
The initiative is part of a larger entrepreneurship strategy that New Vision believes will be key to increase the Yakima Valley's economic base.
New Vision president David McFadden said the organization spent about $10,000 total on the initiative, which included $5,000 in staff hours.
The four cities were chosen based on a clear commitment and support to draw entrepreneurs to their areas.
The initiative was launched in September as a way to mitigate some of the distinctive challenges facing small towns looking to attract and build businesses.
"We have seen businesses come into Zillah in the past five years that have struggled to stay going," said Sandi Fein, a general manager for the Comfort Inn in Zillah who coordinated the initiative in that city. "Many of them have not made it."
Many small cities do not have the infrastructure or the resources to cultivate those businesses, McFadden said.
"If you look at the smaller rural communities, they have less available for entrepreneurs who need a little advice and a little direction," he said.
Yakima, for example, has plenty of SCORE counselors -- current and former business owners who volunteer time to guide people through different aspects of building and growing a business, such as developing a business plan and keeping up with finances.
Those counselors are not readily available in smaller towns, especially for Latino business owners who are dealing with language and culture barriers.
That's why New Vision included recruitment training of new SCORE counselors -- including those who are bilingual -- as part of the initiative. The Lower Valley now has six trained counselors.
The initiative also gave cities the opportunity to pursue other projects by providing interns from Heritage University, who were paid by the university and New Vision.
The Grandview Chamber of Commerce identified vacant spaces in the downtown area available for new businesses. The organization also surveyed existing businesses to figure out their needs, successes and struggles.
The surveying process, which was also done in Spanish, gave the chamber an opportunity to reach out to Latino business owners, said Brad Smith, past president of the Grandview Chamber of Commerce and co-founder of Cellar Door Consultants, a marketing firm.
The chamber plans to organize workshops to respond to some of the needs outlined during the survey process.
In Zillah, the initiative enabled the local chamber of commerce to work on a separate website for those interested in starting a business. The website includes information on available properties and other relevant business information.
The efforts by small communities to promote entrepreneurship is important, Geffen said, because small businesses can provide communities with a more diverse economic base.
"They need to have an economic base other than just farming," he said.
He believes that smaller communities such as Grandview, where he is based, offer advantages for business owners.
"You do garner more attention when you're a new fish in the pond," he said. "Where as in the big city there are so many new fish it's hard for one business to capture the attention and interest of important movers and shakers."
The Entrepreneurial Friendly Cities Initiative is now wrapping up.
It never was intended to be a permanent fixture, but rather a jumping-off point for city and business officials to incorporate entrepreneurship in their economic development plans, said McFadden of New Vision.
New Vision hoped to start the initiative in other towns, but did not secure grant funding to do so. The organization still has enough of its own funds and resources to wrap up loose ends in the four towns originally selected.
"It's still a question in my mind," McFadden said. "We jump-started something; how well will it sustain itself over time?"
It's too early to answer that question, but it's clear the initiative has driven communities to think of new ways to attract new businesses.
In Grandview, for example, there are plans to provide potential business owners the opportunity to do a pop-up business in a vacant storefront for one weekend, said Smith, past president of the Grandview Chamber of Commerce.
He hopes doing so will give business owners a feel for what it's like to do business in the area.
"I think small towns themselves are on the verge of a re-emergence as a vital business space," he said. "The challenge is trying to create that draw."
* Mai Hoang 509-577-7685 or firstname.lastname@example.org.