Missy Hughes, Secretary & CEO, WEDC
Column by Missy Hughes
As we look ahead to the New Year, we’re also looking back on the completion of one of Wisconsin’s most successful small business development initiatives – the Main Street Bounceback grants.
When Governor Evers created the program in the spring of 2021, the idea was to help communities build thriving downtowns by providing $10,000 grants to businesses and nonprofits that moved into empty storefronts.
The governor initially provided $50 million in federal recovery funds, or enough to assist 5,000 businesses. As demand for the grants surged, he increased funding to cover another 2,500 businesses, then 2,500 more – bringing total funding to $100 million for 10,000 grants.
With the program set to end on Dec. 31, WEDC staff and our regional partners are closing in on assisting nearly 7,800 businesses in all 72 counties.
Gaining so many new small businesses in less than two years is impressive enough. But what makes these grants unique are the impacts they’re having on communities and on the business owners – and the lessons we’ve learned making these investments.
From Washburn on Lake Superior in northern Wisconsin to Prairie du Chien along the Mississippi River in southwestern Wisconsin and all points in between, local leaders tell us these grants are bringing excitement to downtowns by filling in the gaps between stores, encouraging people to linger, shop, dine, and spend in their own communities.
For the business owners, the grants have often provided that last little boost that allows them to realize their dreams. One of my favorite examples came last fall, when Governor Evers and I were visiting some of the first Bounceback businesses to open in Fond du Lac.
Monica Lara spotted us walking along Main Street and burst out of her store, with her Bounceback check in hand, so she could personally thank the governor and take a picture with him. Just this month, I stopped back at her store, Argentum et Aurum, and found that not only was her custom jewelry business booming, but she’s planning to expand.
We’ve heard many stories like Monica’s, and we’ve seen what businesses like hers mean to a community.
One unexpected result of the Bounceback program has been that more than half of the grants have gone to women-owned businesses – and over a third of the grants have gone to businesses in rural communities. From these results, we’ve learned that when resources are available, underrepresented entrepreneurs in every part of our state are ready to jump in and succeed.
Another key lesson from the Bounceback grants is how important it is to invest in all our communities.
A recent survey found Wisconsin ranked first in the nation in the share of federal recovery funds allocated to business and second in the share dedicated to economic development. Many of these funds went directly to small businesses, often in relatively small amounts.
What we discovered from the success of the Bounceback grants is that you don’t have to spend big to show big results. That’s because, as one store owner told me, “Small businesses know how to stretch a dollar.”
Our state will reap the benefits of the Main Street Bouncebacks for years to come as these businesses celebrate each New Year and our communities continue to flourish. And at WEDC, we’ll keep the spirit of the Bounceback grants alive by continuing to invest in our small businesses, supporting our communities, and making sure all Wisconsinites have the chance to fulfill their dreams.
Missy Hughes is Secretary and CEO of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, the state’s lead economic development organization.