In November (2017), fifteen aspiring West Virginia entrepreneurs won thousands in grants to help fund their businesses. Strong Mountain Communities (SMC), a division of Coalfield Development Group, hosted the competition that decided the winners.

The goal of the Good Jobs Business Plan Competition, said Jina Belcher, director of business development at Coalfield Development Group, was to bolster excitement in the entrepreneurial community.

“We never expected to have ninety submissions in the initial round,” she said.

Submissions came from a variety of different sectors, resulting in an array of winning businesses—from bookstores to cafes to the West Virginia Farmers Collective. While Coalfield Development Group is based in southern West Virginia and geared towards businesses in that area, the winning submissions shared a common goal: expansion into the rest of the state.

“Of the fifteen businesses that placed and received funding in the final round of the competition, all of them hope to expand in such a way that will allow them to hire employees or open multiple business locations in West Virginia,” added Belcher. “That was a specific question that was asked in the initial application.”

This is good news for the many people in West Virginia who are concerned about the future of the coal industry and how to combat job loss and economic hardship caused by the industry’s decline. It is the hope of SMC that by giving more opportunities to small, local businesses, less families will be forced to rely on the struggling coal industry for economic prosperity.

However, the grant competition was more of a way to nurture economic growth for small businesses. The submissions provided data for SMC, giving insight into “… exactly what entrepreneurs in southern West Virginia needed to succeed,” Belcher said.

By opening the competition up to multiple sectors, she continued, “… the competition allowed us to capture those metrics while providing a platform for entrepreneurs to work towards building the capacity of their business idea.”

This will allow SMC to continue to provide services for businesses with a focus for what will help them become successful in an economic environment that can be difficult to navigate. “It was a win-win for both us and the contestant,” assured Belcher.

After the success of 2017’s competition, they hope to hold another business-plan competition in 2018. “We were thankful that so many funders believed in our idea and supported the WV Good Jobs Fund through their contributions,” Belcher indicated. “That funding allowed us to disseminate eighty-five thousand dollars to our finalists, and we hope to do the same this year.”

So far, the winning businesses seem to be off to a good start. Since the end of the competition in November, Belcher said growth is already apparent. “It’s exciting to know that Strong Mountain Communities played a part in helping them launch their venture and stimulate the West Virginia economy.”

— Did You Know: West Virginia has one of the highest rates of population decline, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Out-migration is a major problem for the state, as more young people are leaving the state than moving in. Job-creating and economy-stimulating programs such as the Good Jobs Business Plan Competition can be a useful tool in West Virginia’s fight against out-migration.

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