KALAMAZOO, MI -- Support for small business development in Kalamazoo and Southwest Michigan became more coordinated Monday with the announcement of plans for a new initiative by the Greater Kalamazoo Business Resources Group.

The group, which is a consortium of local organizations that provide free or reduced-cost services to help new and small businesses, is working to launch a virtual accelerator program for new businesses.

The organization says it's a few weeks from rolling out a pilot program that will establish a cohort of one to five fledgling businesses that members of the  Business Resources Group will identify. The members will then throw all their resources behind helping those businesses launch.

"It will do anything and everything to have an opening for the businesses we choose," said Dwayne Powell Jr., neighborhood business and special projects coordinator for the city of Kalamazoo.

The virtual accelerator program was announced Monday, May 1, during a networking event at Fuze Kitchen & Bar at 214 E. Michigan Ave. in downtown Kalamazoo The occasion also marked the start of Small Business Week in Kalamazoo and the United States.

The event was hosted by the Greater Kalamazoo Business Resources Group, a relatively new organization created "to help calibrate small business development in the community,"  Powell said.

He and Debi Howe, a certified mentor for SCORE, said that prior to coordinating their efforts, the dozen or more local organizations that strive to help small businesses were not really working together. They operated independently and often without knowledge of what others were doing, they said.

"When I started working as a mentor for SCORE, I learned that there were a whole lot of other resources out there that could help small businesses get started, or that could help small businesses succeed or grow," said Howe, a former business owner who has been a SCORE volunteer for 11 years and is now its vice chairperson. "That's what we want to do -- help small businesses grow. But everybody was in their own little silo."

SCORE enlists established business leaders and professionals to mentor small business owners and encourage the formation and success of small businesses.

"It's just really healthy for us to consistently get together," Powell said of small business support organizations. "So every month we get together and we talk about what we're going through, what we want to go though, and we are also looking at some projects to work together on."

The virtual accelerator initiative may be their first effort in that regard. It is to be followed in a year to 18 months by one that seeks to establish an entrepreneurship center, a location where people who want to start or grow a business can find help from all of the organizations. They are now in various locations.

Support for the Business Resources Group includes SCORE, the Michigan Small Business Development Center, Buy Local, Can-Do Kitchen, PTAC, Michgan Works Southwest, the City of Kalamazoo, the Kalamazoo Regional Chamber of Commerce, WMed Innovation Center, the Fetzer Center, Startup Grind, Starting Gate, WMU Business Connection and Kzoo Makers.

Powell said the organizations are trying to create "some next-level unity" to develop a healthy ecosystem for businesses here.

Small businesses and Small Business Week are very important to any economy, explained Damon Allison, an associate at regional economic development organization Southwest Michigan First. He is director of its small business division.

Small Business Week celebrates small businesses for being the creators of 64 percent of all new jobs in the region and for being the drivers of innovation. National Small Business Week (April 30 through May 6) honors the estimated 27.9 million small businesses in the United States, including 5,495 in Kalamazoo County, according to SCORE.

Although the U.S. Small Business Administration identifies a small business generally as one with less than 500 employees and less than $7.5 million in average annual revenue, most are business with fewer that 20 workers that don't ever anticipate clearing a fraction of the amount mentioned as a annual standard.

Allison said, "We have so many small businesses that are doing well and they need to be highlighted, which we did today."

Among those that took a bow at Monday's gathering were: Brandon Chidester of Jacket 360; Michael Tirikos, of Y'OPA Frozen Yogurt' Amruth Raj Hunumanthagowda, of Durablika; and Dan Van Dis, of V.A. Bootery.

Also included were Ben and Sarah Martin, owners of Soil Friends Farm in Galesburg. Their business was named the Small Business Development Center's 2016 Best Small Business of the Year for the Southwest Michigan Region. The 3-year-old business utilizes 10 acres on 33rd Street in Galesburg to grow chemical-free, organic vegetables.

"And we buy vegetables that we don't grow and fruit crops from other farmers," said Ben Martin, who graduated from Western Michigan University in 2014 with a business degree focused food and consumer packaging.

Soil Friends Farm includes a farm market to allow people to buy direct from the farm. The business also wholesales produce to about 21 Michigan grocery stores.

"From the help of SBDC and going to Western as a business student," Martin explained, "that's what really helped us -- taking the proper steps of starting a business, writing a business plan and then the financials, the projections and things like that. It's not just guessing on how a growing season is going to go."

Martin wanted to start a skateboard shop after he graduated from college but that idea evolved as he crafted business plans with the help of the Small Business Development Center. His passion has gone from skateboards to organic vegetable farming.

"We're a chemical-free farm so we grow the food there so people can come and buy it and they can see where the food's from," he said.

Soil Friends Farm has seen about 50 percent growth in sales in each of its inaugural years. It also has a Community Supported Agriculture program in which people buy a share of the crops before the seasons starts and receive a box of vegetables each week during the 20- to 22-week season.

Martin and his wife were sweethearts at Comstock High School. She was pursuing a nursing degree through Kalamazoo Valley Community College when the two started a family. With children ages 5 and 3 and a third child on the way, she handles the finances of the business.

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