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Grant program helps new businesses open in downtown Erwin

Lee Brown, left, and Tyler Engle present Sharee Perciful with a check. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Kendal Groner)

By Kendal Groner

Participation by local entrepreneurs in the Cool & Connected Downtown grant program through the Appalachian Regional Commission, Erwin Utilities and the Joint Economic Development Board of Unicoi County has led to the development of two small businesses that are opening their doors in downtown Erwin.

The grant program provided a nine-week Co.Starters business training curriculum that taught participants about all of the ins and outs of starting a small business. At the end of the nine weeks, the two participants were presented with $4,000 in grant assistance, a year of support from the Unicoi County Chamber of Commerce and a year of gigabit broadband from Erwin Utilities/Erwin Fiber.

“It’s a nine-week business development course and it covers all kinds of topics from legal concerns that someone may have when starting a business to accounting, marketing and finally putting everything together to create a business plan,” said Tyler Engle, executive director for the Unicoi County Economic Development Board. “It was a pretty big time commitment from the folks involved and to my knowledge this was the first time we’ve ever offered La Co.Starter class in Unicoi County.”

After completing the program, Sharee Perciful has now opened What’s the Scoop Ice Cream shop at 214 S. Main Ave. Jan Bowden will be opening Union Street Gallery in July or August – an art gallery featuring metal and glass fusing and cutting, which will be located at 100 Union St.

Perciful and her family, who recently moved to Erwin from North Carolina in hopes of starting a business, said the class was wonderful in terms of allowing her and her husband, Kenneth Perciful, to gain a broader view of their business while also evaluating the needs of the community. A ribbon-cutting ceremony was held on May 9 for What’s the Scoop. The ice cream shop offers an array of flavors, including an allergy-friendly option and a board game cafe. 

“Being a previous business owner, we felt pretty knowledgeable, but it really allowed us to evaluate the needs of the community a little bit deeper,” Perciful said. 

She also said the classes allowed them to start slowly and pace themselves, enabling them to focus on customer service as their main priority. 

“My husband said ‘it’s not a race, it’s a marathon, and not to take it full force, but to take it slow and steady’,” she said.

The classes included guest speakers, which Perciful said allowed her to hear invaluable testimony on the mistakes and successes of other small business owners and narrow down the specific needs for her own business. She added that it was invaluable being able to develop a relationship with Bowden throughout the classes and connect with another new business owner in the process.

“We see the community as having been in kind of a stagnant place, as far as new business coming in, and we didn’t want to feel like the only new kids on the block,” Perciful said. “We wanted to be inspired by growth around us also.”

Bowden and her husband, Vince Bowden, recently moved from Ohio in hopes of starting a smaller art gallery than they previously had in order to focus more on individual customers and interacting with the community. In addition to offering instructional classes at their studio, Union Street Gallery will showcase Jan Bowden’s glass fusing, plasma cutting and metal work, as well as her husband’s welding work, with many of their creations including recycled material.

“We’re not focused on just one item and I thrive on interacting with the public and that’s why I’m really excited to be in downtown Erwin,” said Jan Bowden. “One of the things that was wonderful about the Co.Starters class is it was instrumental in helping me to focus on the startup costs and how to break even and eventually make a profit.”

The Co.Starters class allowed the Bowdens to determine if they were on track with their business model, while also putting them in the right mindset to complete necessary tasks to bring their business to fruition.

“Some of the most useful topics were determining your breakeven point and seeing examples of what would be feasible in terms of making decisions on whether your idea can translate into a business where you make money,” said Bowden.

Engle said he is pleased to know that both What’s the Scoop and Union Street Gallery are two local businesses that are off to a strong start after the business owners participated in the class.

“Both an ice cream shop and an art gallery were on our focus list, so when we went into the Co. Starters, to get both of those businesses through this grant, we were really, really pleased,” he said. “We hope to do another cohort later on this year somewhere in Unicoi County. Obviously, the parameters of this grant were focused on downtown Erwin, but we would like to be able to offer it to everyone in Unicoi County next time so more people are eligible.”