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POp up plan for business growth

South Boston News
Ken Heath from Marion, presented a talk on the success of the Pop-Up Marion Program at the Innovation Center at the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center. / March 14, 2016

The Town of Marion, in southwest Virginia, turned its future around with its “Pop-Up Marion Program” to foster entrepreneurialism and small business expansion. Begun in 1994, the program established Marion as “an overnight success, 20 years in the making,” observed Ken Heath, the town’s director of community and economic development.

On Thursday night, South Boston welcomed Heath for a presentation at the SVHEC Innovation Center to show how South Boston can do the same thing for its commercial district.

South Boston town manager Tom Raab, opened the meeting by pointing out the similarities between South Boston and Marion.

“It is great to explore the possibilities with a community that we share so many similarities with,” Raab said. “They have the Lincoln Theatre and we have The Prizery. They have the Francis Marion Hotel and we will have the John Randolph Hotel. They have a pop-up program, and now we plan to have a pop-up program.”

Heath presented the different strategies used over the years that helped Marion become the success that it is now.

“People see us as a place with momentum,” Heath explained. “A place to go for small businesses. And people must understand that you need to have a presentation, whether it’s for your business, or you as a person. You have to represent what you want.”

Explaining the success of Marion’s pop-up program, Heath recounted the time that he received a call from the Small Business Administration stating that they liked the program and wanted to present Marion with an award.

“I thought they were going to send me a leg lamp,” Heath laughed. “But they gave us $10,000, and that got us up and running.”

With the funding, Heath developed Pop-Up Marion, which entailed a five-week entrepreneur training program designed for startups and expansions. The outreach helped Marion draw entrepreneurs and small retailers to fill its vacant storefronts.

Destination Downtown South Boston has just received a $25,000 Downtown Improvement Grant from the Virginia Main Street program to start up its own So Bo Pop-Up Program. Business entrepreneurs are instructed on all the ins and outs of starting their own small business, challenged to develop their own business plan, and given the opportunity to compete for $5,000 in grant monies.

Destination Downtown South Boston executive director Tamyra Vest, said the decent turnout for the meeting and praised the main guest: “Ken is a dynamic speaker, and he really got us revved up on wanting to improve downtown [South Boston].”

“We are looking forward to modeling Marion’s program and partnering with Longwood Small Business Development Center in helping entrepreneurs learn the skills they need,” Vest said. “For now we’re trying to figure out the specifics of the program, like how many classes per week and what are the incentives. It’ll be a great program to ultimately get some businesses downtown.”

Vest also added that Destination Downtown has planned to visit Marion in April to check out their local events and local businesses.

“It kind of reenergizes us to do more for South Boston when we take these trips,” she explained.

The Thursday night program at the SVHEC was sponsored by Destination Downtown, the Town of South Boston and the Longwood Small Business Development Center.

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