WJAC: New project aims to help entrepreneurs

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(Published by WJAC TV, Wednesday, June 21, 2017. Katie O’Toole, Reporter) http://wjactv.com/news/local/a-new-project-aims-to-help-entrepreneurs


New project aims to help entrepreneurs

ALTOONA — Business owners in Blair County said it’s extremely difficult to start a business in the region because of the lack of funding and assistance, but a new entrepreneurial project announced this week aims to change that.

The Southern Alleghenies Planning Development Commission has initiated what directors call “an ecosystem for entrepreneurs” in Central Pennsylvania with a $1,233,213 grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC).

The project, revealed on Tuesday, is called Startup Alleghenies, and the commission called it an “ecosystem for entrepreneurship.”

Startup Alleghenies offers coaches and networking opportunities for hopeful business owners in Somerset, Cambria and Blair counties.

Two business owners in Blair County said they know what it’s like to start from scratch.

Jennifer Hrivak co-owns a new health and wellness cafe called Joos in Hollidaysburg.

When asked about her biggest challenges, she didn’t know where to start.

“Oh boy, so many things,” she said.

It took Joos about a year to open its doors, and Hrivak said finance was a huge setback.

“I think because our idea was so new to Blair County, even though we met with potential investors, we got turned down by all of them. I just don’t think they got the vision of what we were trying to do, so I ended up being the sole investor,” she said.

Sarah Voegel shared a similar story. She recently opened her business, The Clay Cup in Altoona. She said, like Hrivak, she had to pay out of pocket with no financial help to get started.

Both women said it seemed impossible to get a loan, grant or any other type of funding in Blair County for entrepreneurs.

“I had to go find it all myself. It was tricky, and I worked really hard to come up with as much cash as I could and I had to go out and find the rest myself,” Voegel said.

She said that’s what discourages entrepreneurs. Not only do they need the money to buy or rent a location, they also need enough to sustain a payroll and purchase all the products and equipment, all before they make a penny in profit.

The ARC website said it covers West Virginia and parts of Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia.

All together, the ARC focuses on regional economic development for more than 25 million people and covers 420 counties and almost 205,000 square miles, according to the website.

On June 14, the ARC announced a $15.7 million investment in 18 different projects, including Startup Alleghenies, that aim to resurrect old coal-towns, many of which are in Central Pennsylvania.

Startup Alleghenies coach Richard Lasek said he’s there to point entrepreneurs in the right direction.

“Each case is going to be unique, and each is going to potentially need a different set of assistance products, programs and funding sources. It’s our job to understand where you are as an entrepreneur and what you need,” Lasek said.

Blair County Commissioner Bruce Erb is on the Southern Alleghenies Planning and Development Commission. He said there are benefits for entrepreneurs who stay in Central Pa. to start out, rather than those who go to the larger surrounding cities including Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.

“The compeition is not as fierce here as it would be in the city. The cost of a startup and the cost of everything is so much lower,” Erb said.

Both Voegel and Hrivak said the challenges may be tough, but pushing through them has been worth it.

“I’ve been open for three months and people are regulars. I see the same people everyday and new people everyday. I’m definitely getting a lot of local support and that’s really exciting,” Voegel said.

“Don’t be afraid to just jump in and figure it out because that’s what I did,” Hrivak said.

Startup Alleghenies has two launch events next week; the Somerset County launch on June 27 at Seven Springs Mountain Resort at 6:30 p.m. and the Blair County launch on June 29 at Railraod City Brewery at 4 p.m.

For entrepreneurs who are interested, Startup Alleghenies lists Dan Parisi as the Somerset launch contact at dparsis@scedc.net, and Matt Fox as the Blair launch contact at mattf@abcdcorp.org.