Sheep Springs focus of microenterprise grant

By Alysa Landry
Special to the Times

WASHINGTON, August 8, 2013

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T he tiny community of Sheep Springs, N.M., will soon welcome seven new entrepreneurs, thanks to a $40,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The lucky seven are survivors of an original 13-member class on setting up and growing a "microenterprise" - a business with fewer than 50 employees and less than $1 million in projected gross revenue.

The Rural Business Enterprise Grant is expected to assist as many as 30 microenterprises, both established and new, in the next two years. It is one of 131 grants distributed nationwide, totaling $6.5 million and aimed at strengthening rural economies.

The grant, given to the Northwest New Mexico Council of Governments, will be used to continue providing assistance to American Indian entrepreneurs, said Ernie Watson, a spokesman for the New Mexico office of the USDA.

The council, in conjunction with the University of New Mexico Gallup and Tohatchi Area of Opportunity and Service, provides nine-month training sessions for disadvantaged entrepreneurs.

The Native American Microenterprise Project is open to entrepreneurs in the U.S. 491 corridor between Gallup and Newcomb, said Bob Kuipers, regional planner for the Northwest New Mexico Council of Governments. It serves mainly Navajo entrepreneurs, but also accepts members of other tribes.

"We're looking for serious entrepreneurs who are at a disadvantage and who are trying to grow a business," Kuipers said. "We're looking for any entrepreneur without the resources to get an education or training, but who sincerely wants to leverage a business or increase sales."

The majority of entrepreneurs currently in the program are looking for ways to market arts and crafts at local venues or online, but the course is not limited to these businesses, Kuipers said.

The program, which also gets funding from Kellogg Foundation and U.S. Bank, is preparing to graduate its first class. The seven graduates will each receive a certificate from the University of New Mexico.

"Students are not simply graduating," Kuipers said. "Mentors will keep working with them for another year afterward."

The Rural Business Enterprise Grant will help compensate UNM for the costs of curriculum development. The grant also will help reimburse students' travel and childcare expenses. Classes alternate between the UNM Gallup campus and the Tohatchi Area of Opportunity and Service.

The program plans to partner in the future with the Navajo Tourism and Welcome Center in Sheep Springs, where students can use vending booths to practice what they learn, Kuipers said.

The welcome center, a $1.5 million project, is about 95 percent complete.

According to data from the New Mexico office of the USDA, communities of fewer than 50,000 residents are eligible for the Rural Business Enterprise Grant. Businesses that seek assistance must employ fewer than 50 workers and have less than $1 million in projected gross revenues.

The goal of the grant is to target small businesses in rural areas, said Lillian Salerno, administrator of the USDA's Rural Business-Cooperative Service.

The grants come as sequester cuts still loom and Congress struggles to pass a new Food, Farm and Jobs Bill before the Sept. 30 deadline. The Farm Bill is expected to further expand the rural economy, Salerno said.

"Strategic investments in rural businesses not only help to deliver more products and services to local customers, they also contribute to rural revitalization and economic development in the small towns where these businesses are located," she said.

The Native American Microenterprise Project is recruiting for its next class. It asks that potential students be "serious entrepreneurs" with a quality service or product to offer.

Information, call Marcella Franklin at 505-722-9287 or Bob Kuipers at 505-722-4327.