A Minnesota nonprofit is expanding loans, grants and consulting services to small businesses in much of northern Wisconsin.
The effort, funded by $8 million from the state of Wisconsin, initially targets seven counties in the Northwest, Duluth’s Entrepreneurs Fund said. By 2025, five additional counties will be added in the northern part of the state and also include five First Nations nations.
Much of the funding comes from Wisconsin’s share of the American Rescue Program Act (ARPA) for rural businesses that are underrepresented in traditional loans.
Shawn Wellnitz, president and CEO of the Entrepreneur Fund, said the focus is on the area north of State Highway 8, which has historically been underfunded. Some communities will include Spooner, Hayward, Ashland, Bayfield and Eagle River.
Through a $3.5 million revolving fund, the nonprofit will provide loans at below-market rates. Grants totaling $800,000 will also be awarded, and eligibility criteria will be announced next spring.
“If you’re a startup, this is probably your best resource,” Wellnitz said.
For many years, Entrepreneur Fund has served northeast Minnesota and Douglas County, Wisconsin, on the Minnesota border. With ARPA funding, loans, grants and business services will expand to Ashland, Bayfield, Burnett, Iron, Price, Sawyer and Washburn counties in 2023. By the end of 2025, Florence, Forest, Oneida, Marinette, and Vilas counties will be added.
Services include one-on-one consulting in the areas of business strategy, finance, human resources, and raising capital for start-ups and expansions.
In August, Ben and Mary Anderson acquired Eddie’s Restaurant in Superior, using Entrepreneur Funds to create a business plan and secure financing.
Mary has worked in the hospitality industry, including catering for film crews in New York, and Ben has worked as an emergency medical technician and staff member at an orthopedic clinic.
Eddie’s originated in the late 1800’s. Over time, Ben said, it evolved from a railroad café to a supper club known for its BBQ ribs, steaks and Route 66 themes.
The Andersons used credit union and fund loans to acquire the business and renovate it, which included adding seating to generate extra income.
“We kept the supper club theme,” says Ben, and in a nod to Superior’s shipping port heritage, the restaurant now salvages wood from old granaries.
The first lender the Andersons approached advised them to contact the Entrepreneur Fund instead.
“I don’t have a business background,” Ben said, so he needed help.
Less than three months later, they secured the loans they needed through their credit union and entrepreneur fund.
“I think it’s because they helped us lay the groundwork,” Ben said.
Founded in 1989, the Entrepreneurs Fund has helped more than 2,000 businesses last year. As a community development agency, one of our goals is to help start-ups through their first challenging years.
Jonathan Browstowitz of Douglas County used the funds to start a storage unit business and a dog boarding kennel.
“They helped me from the beginning,” he said.
“When I contacted them, they were very enthusiastic.”
By the end of 2025, the fund is expected to serve 29 counties and 10 indigenous peoples in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
“Basically, any small business in northern Wisconsin is eligible for services and funding,” Wellnitz said.
The Entrepreneur Fund is setting up an office in Wisconsin, possibly in Hayward.
“We match people with loans to make sure borrowers get the help they need to be successful long-term,” Wellnitz said.
Traditionally, the nonprofit works with businesses with annual revenues of $5 million or less, which includes most small businesses.
The revolving loan fund will use leverage to gain additional capital, with the goal of lending more than $11 million by 2024.
“We will borrow money from social impact investors and others who care about rural Wisconsin,” Wellnitz said.