The opening is refreshing in this community that has seen its share of Main Street businesses come and go — in the effort to compete with discount mega chains like Walmart, and online giants such as Amazon.
Twenty Iowa State University students — 18 undergraduates and two graduate assistants — from an entrepreneurship in human sciences class took a tour of Jewell’s Main Street last week, in an effort to see how they can help small businesses here succeed. Their goal: to provide businesses with a toolkit of strategies to improve their marketing, branding, and more.
Open on weekends
During their site visit, students learned that many business owners in Jewell work full-time jobs during the week, and just open their stores on weekends.
Mischelle Hardy, the owner of Sew Bee It Quilt Shop since 2013, said she works an average of 75 hours a week, between the quilt shop and her brother’s gravel business. While she saw a 38 percent increase in sales at her custom sewing shop last year, she said only four of the town’s 60 quilters patronize her business. Most of her customers are from out of town.
“I’d really like a website to sell things online,” Hardy told the students.
That was a common theme around town from business owners who said they receive some help from the Jewell Area Development Enterprise (JADE), but not in areas such as web design and social media.
The town has also struggled to keep a restaurant. Hardy ran a successful restaurant called Mischelle’s Food & Spirits from 2006 to 2012. But she was eventually forced to file bankruptcy and close.
“A business can go down in a heartbeat,” she said.
Mickey Walker, who’s been mayor of Jewell for 28 years, said the restaurant business can be tough, with its number of hours and requirements. During students’ visit to Jewell, they ate lunch at the town’s newest eatery, Abuelos Mexican Restaurant, which opened late last year and is one of the businesses that students are working with this semester.
Sense of pride in community
Jeremy and Rachel Uttecht, owners of DK Soap & Design Studio, already sell their products online and at farmers markets, arts and crafts fairs, state fairs, and vintage stores — but wanted to have a presence on Main Street.
“We want to be a vital part of the community we live in,” Jeremy Uttecht said. “We have a sense of pride.”
The Uttechts’ store in Jewell features soaps, oils, lotions, artisan foods such as jelly and beer bread mixes, jewelry, magnets, maps, and hand-sewn towels — basically, things you won’t find anywhere else.
The couple often utilize their store hours to package and work on inventory they will sell elsewhere. But having that Main Street presence helps to make Jewell a destination place for all that’s vintage. By offering unique products, the Uttechts said they’ve attracted customers from as far away as Minneapolis.
Serving retailers statewide
The effort by students and faculty in the College of Human Sciences to help Main Street businesses is in its 14th year.
Teams of students in apparel, events, and hospitality management partner with ISU Extension and Outreach each semester on the initiative that aims to provides a single point of contact for communities and retailers seeking business assistance.
“If we can assist small communities, this has an aggregate positive impact on the economic vitality of the whole county,” said Linda Niehm, the professor who leads the entrepreneurship in human sciences class and is also a Dean’s Faculty Fellow in the College of Human Sciences.
Over the past 13 years, these outreach efforts have served about 200 retailers in 50 communities across the state and provided more than 600 students with real-world learning experiences. The experience allows students to apply their knowledge of entrepreneurship, and engage in service learning.
The outreach has been well-received. Business owners in Spencer, one of the communities assisted in the last five years, said they were impressed with the students’ hard work, energy, enthusiasm, and great ideas. They especially appreciated the assistance being provided at no cost to the business.
“This was a wonderful gift,” said Carrie Nelson, owner of Carrick’s Hallmark in Spencer. “Had we hired somebody to come in and do this, you’re talking thousands of dollars and maybe not liking what you just bought from them.”
Students currently in Niehm’s entrepreneurship in human sciences class will continue their research and analysis, and offer Jewell business owners initial ideas and strategies for improvement later this month. By late April, the students will provide final recommendations to their business clients and local community leaders, through presentations in the community setting.