Downtown Philomath

The city is looking into the possibility of participating in a joint effort that would bring in a venture catalyst to work on developing entrepreneurship, which could pay off in the long run for Philomath's economic development aspirations.

In the Philomath Strategic Plan, city manager Chris Workman describes the document as "the playbook for moving our city forward."

This playbook, created for fiscal years 2017 through 2021, identifies "healthy economy" as one of its five primary themes.

As a result, when an opportunity comes along that not only fits right in with those goals but could also bring energy into the city's economic capabilities, Workman takes note.

During the Feb. 12 city council meeting, he looked for guidance on whether or not Philomath should pursue a $50,000 Business Oregon Rural Opportunity Initiative (ROI) grant with seven other rural communities in Benton and Linn counties.

The council ultimately gave its thumbs up for Workman to include Philomath in the application process, which initially shows a pro-rated matching grant amount of $2,461.14.

"It's one of those where I'm open either way," Workman told the council. "It's a good opportunity but at the same time, it's dollars that we're not currently spending."

What's it all about?

The Oregon Regional Accelerator & Innovation Network (RAIN) is a nonprofit organization that describes itself as serving "entrepreneurs in Oregon's South Willamette Valley and Mid-Coast by connecting them to resources and partners that can help them turn ideas into thriving, local traded-sector companies."

Workman told councilors, "They have a whole range of things that they do, everything from focusing on entrepreneurs to doing accelerator programs or incubator spaces where businesses can get started for a lower cost and get going."

Workman said Oregon RAIN reached out to several small cities in Benton and Linn counties to see if there would be interest in applying for a $50,000 grant, which could go toward hiring a full-time venture catalyst.

Workman described the venture catalyst as "an individual practitioner that would work within all of those small communities in Linn and Benton counties and work on entrepreneurship and identifying and providing tools for those entrepreneurs in those areas."

In what is being called the "Linn-Benton 8-City Partnership," those considering participation include Lebanon, Sweet Home, Philomath, Harrisburg, Brownsville, Halsey, Adair Village and Monroe.

"We thought it was a great idea," Workman said about the initial reaction to the Oregon RAIN pitch. "We pulled a joint letter together saying we're all going to work together for this, we're all applying for these grants and if we get the grants, we're going to do this."

In response to the joint letter, Workman said the state loved the application and to submit $50,000 for consideration.

"Not exactly what we were hoping for so with that, we've gone reaching out for money from both Linn County and Benton County," Workman said. "In my reaching out, it was discovered that Benton County's already giving $20,000 a year to Oregon RAIN."

As a result, Oregon RAIN identified the $20,000 as Benton County's match for the grant with hopes for another $20,000 to come from Linn County. The eight communities would then combine their efforts to come up with another $20,000.

That all adds up to $110,000 with $40,000 from the counties, $20,000 from the communities and the $50,000 Business Oregon grant which, as Workman said, "would give us a full-time venture catalyst to work within our region and to provide these events."

Of course, those numbers can be considered only as informational at this point with nothing finalized and several contributions toward the effort pending.

Business Oregon does not require a commitment of matching funds, but information provided by Workman to the council said they were advised that the application "would score more competitively if we did."

The communities divvy up the $20,000 based on population. Lebanon, as the largest city among the group with a population of 16,720, would be asked to contribute $8,736.77. That's based on Lebanon having 43.7 percent of the population in the eight communities combined.

Philomath is the third largest at 4,710 residents, or 12.3 percent to the total, for $2,461.14. The smallest, Monroe, with a 620 population would need to come up with just $323.97.

"For just under $2,500, the potential of having a full-time practitioner in our region with our size and contribution, we'd have one to two specific events in Philomath and the others would be in the region that Philomath entrepreneurs could attend," Workman said. "So I think it's a pretty good deal if that's an area where the council feels comfortable spending money."

Mayor Rocky Sloan believed the grant was something worth analyzing.

"I think back to budget committee meetings last year and annexation meetings last year and a huge part of the citizenry were coming in here saying we're looking at it backwards; that we need to be doing economic development and bringing businesses in and not houses," Sloan said. "So, judging from that, I'm assuming we would have a large backing going into this."

Workman admitted he had some hesitancy but believed it's something to be considered.

"It's identified in the strategic plan and we definitely have heard it from the public, I'll agree with the mayor on that," Workman said. "We've definitely heard the city needs to be more active and encourage economic development."

An objective listed in the city's strategic plan states:

"Create an encouraging environment for the development and expansion of desired businesses. Collaborate with organizations focused on business retention, expansion, startup development and entrepreneurship to establish new firms and strengthen existing businesses."

Philomath's share of $2,461.14, an amount not set in stone based on how other communities proceed, would come out of the city's General Fund, which based on the fee that was implemented last year may not go over real well with some residents.

"It is in the strategic plan to work on economic development and what we can to stimulate this," Workman said. "This is a fairly inexpensive way to do that, but it is money that we're not currently spending."

According to Oregon RAIN's website, there are currently two venture catalysts, one of those focused on the coast. Workman said there have been positive results in the Lincoln County-Florence area.

"This last year, they identified 14 individual events they held in that area," he said. "They had participation of 30-plus people at each of the events. They identified a number of those that actually got some capital behind them for their projects as they've gone through with their marketing plans and development plans.

"So overall, it showed some really good success in having that person there stirring things up on that development side," Workman added. "So we'd be looking to duplicate that project here for Linn and Benton counties."

The venture catalyst would focus on:

· Gathering and advising local entrepreneurial stakeholders.

· Assessing the entrepreneurial landscape and begin filling the gaps.

· Start building a more cohesive network.

· Connecting with difficult-to-reach entrepreneurs and innovators/inventors and match them with people, programs and capital.

· Exploring the need for a maker space/incubator.

· Encouraging regional collaboration.

· Hosting educational events and programs for entrepreneurs, innovators, investors and partners to "build the local entrepreneurial culture."

· Recruiting and developing mentors with various areas of business expertise.

Workman said there will be opportunities for future funding through Business Oregon's ROI, specifically for up to $75,000 in the "Launch Category" and then up to $100,000 in the "Scale Category" as the program is established and grows.

The venture catalyst in these later stages would add various activities to the effort, such as recruiting and training high net-worth people from the region to become "angel investors," providing access to early capital for traded-sector startups, and reporting and promoting entrepreneurial metrics and success stories to partners, funders and the media.

After the council agreed that Philomath should be a part of the application process, Workman said that if the grant is awarded, he would come back with a finalized dollar figure on city's share.



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