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Extension economic diversification efforts helping Nevada’s small businesses

Posted 8/16/2012

Cattle being rounded up

Louise Helton. Photo credit: John Gurzinksi, Las Vegas Review Journal

In 2011, Louise Helton was looking for help with her business, 1 Sun Solar Companies, a new Las Vegas electrical contracting company that specializes in rooftop solar energy installations for homes, businesses and government buildings. She knew her products would make fiscal sense for potential clients, but she felt she needed help securing contracts.

So when she heard that University of Nevada Cooperative Extension was offering a free, nine-month course for small business owners and entrepreneurs, she jumped at the chance to enroll.

A year later, her revenues have tripled, and she’s been able to forge key business relationships that previously seemed out of reach. She credits her success to Cooperative Extension and UNCE Economic Development Specialist Buddy Borden, who helped launch and teach the business-training classes.

"We learned cash-flow management, insurance and bonding, marketing, project estimating — that sort of nuts and bolts kind of information," Helton said. "But we were also able to meet the actual people who we wanted to do business with — county commissioners, procurement officials and the heads of departments. We had one-on-one meetings with them, and we got to know them personally. You can’t put a dollar value on the opportunities that open up to you in a class like that!"

Borden launched the Business Opportunity and Workforce Development (BOWD) program in partnership with Akers & Associates, Inc.; Foundation for an Independent Tomorrow; Nevada Small Business Development Center; and J-Hart Communications. That group has come to call itself the Strategic Alliance for Emerging Small Business, or SafeSB.

For Helton, whose experiences with the program prompted her to join Cooperative Extension’s Advisory Committee this year, Borden’s small business class is just one example of the many ways Extension is quietly bolstering and helping diversify Nevada’s economy.

"Extension does this kind of thing for thousands of Nevadans every day on an ongoing basis," Helton says.

Borden, in fact, has launched other programs in recent years. His Business Retention and Expansion program identifies current business needs and barriers in southern Nevada that may restrict a business’s growth or encourage it to relocate. Borden works to help those businesses overcome obstacles so they’ll stay put and give jobs to Nevadans.

"A healthy economy depends on the well-being of existing firms," said Borden, who facilitates the program in partnership with the Clark County Economic Development department. "Sixty-five to 80 percent of all new jobs are created by existing firms, yet many communities discount the needs of existing businesses because they are already functioning there. Keeping a business is often easier to recruiting a new business."

The many facets of Extension’s economic diversification efforts

There are many other examples of the work Cooperative Extension is doing to diversify and strengthen Nevada’s economy. For example:

  • UNCE is working with the Nevada office of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development (USDA RD) and the Governor’s Office of Economic Development to help rural counties diversify and improve their economies. The Stronger Economies Together (SET) program combines the community development expertise of UNCE faculty with detailed planning data to help the eight rural Nevada counties of the Western Nevada Development District collaborate on regional economic development and help the state reach Gov. Brian Sandoval’s economic development goal of bringing 50,000 new jobs to Nevada by 2014.
  • UNCE has several programs that help prepare Nevada students for the workforce. Mini-Society, teaches business skills to youth 10 to 12 years old — an age that’s ideal for recognizing entrepreneurial opportunities, studies show. More than 4,000 students have completed the program. They design and develop their own society — creating a name, flag and currency — and they establish their own businesses to provide goods and services to their fellow citizens. Mini-Society incorporates and compliments such school subjects such as math, science, critical thinking, problem-solving and decision-making. Other programs, like Bootstraps, put out-of-work and out-of-school teens to work and teach them a marketable skill that later helps them return to school or stay employed.
  • UNCE’s Carl Dahlen, a leadership specialist, works with a variety of UNCE faculty on community assessments. When a community requests an assessment, a team goes to town and conducts a series of "listening sessions" with various community groups, identifies strengths and weaknesses, and prepares a report to help communities plan their futures. The teams have completed 12 assessments in the last three years.
  • Lander County Extension Educator Rod Davis works with a team trying to identify industries that might benefit by locating in former mining sites, where there is an established infrastructure but the land is no longer of value for mining. That effort is part of his Lander County Sustainable Economic Development program, which seeks to modulate the severe fluctuations in the Battle Mountain economy due to the rapid expansion and contraction of mining activity. The program has helped develop a marketing plan as well as a business and housing analysis. A recent Housing Crisis Community/Industry Summit resulted in the construction of a 59-unit housing complex. A second development is in the planning stages.
  • In several communities around the state, Cooperative Extension educators have been instrumental in helping local leaders establish flourishing tourism initiatives. Eagles & Agriculture brings bird watchers to Douglas County during the early spring when tourism is traditionally slow. With the help of Extension Community and Organizational Development Specialist Marlene Rebori, White Pine County is looking to promote its recreational opportunities to tourists. Lincoln County has launched its own events to highlight the area’s rural beauty, recreation and agricultural products. "People come out here, see how beautiful it is and then want to come back," said Lincoln County Extension Educator Holly Gatzke. "Restaurants, gas stations and hotels benefit from the tourism."

Helping a new generation of farmers and ranchers

Many associate Cooperative Extension with its work with farmers, and that effort continues. Herds & Harvest is a new three-year Cooperative Extension program designed to help make Nevada farmers and ranchers more profitable. Some of the agricultural producers coming to Herds & Harvest seminars around the state are experienced but many are new to business — such as the small-acreage farmer near Logandale who increased his alfalfa yields by 76 percent after listening to UNCE Alternative Crop Specialist Jay Davison give a talk on optimum fertilization for grass and alfalfa.

Cooperative Extension educators in rural counties are increasingly offering Nevadans help with the business end of farming and ranching. Northeast Clark County Educator Carol Bishop helps residents develop business plans to provide goods and services needed in her remote community and coaches farmers on how to design enterprise budgets. Gatzke, meanwhile, is helping small-acreage farmers develop business relationships with Las Vegas restaurants and has planted test plots for different berries being sought by Las Vegas chefs. She also secured a grant to start the local processing of food products in her county.

"Everyone in Nevada wins when we can trace the origin of our agriculture products," said Cooperative Extension Central/Northeast Area Director Loretta Singletary. "Helping Nevada producers ensures that our state can feed itself and purchasing power stays in our state."

Long-term economic development

Although some programs are new and are in response to Nevada’s recent economic downturn, many of the diversification efforts conducted by Extension faculty have been going on for years. Tom Harris and the UNCE-supported University Center for Economic Development (UCED) provide economic development research, technical assistance and educational services to rural and urban areas interested in community development.

"We look at identifying the next potential industry — what industry to look for," Harris said.

Many Extension programs fortify budding and stable businesses in less obvious ways. Child care centers — a critical service for households with two working parents — count on Cooperative Extension to provide their workers with free or low-cost professional development. Each year UNCE’s early childhood education team develops new curricula to teach early childhood professionals in Nevada.

"Training is key," said Youth Development Specialist Jackie Reilly. "Studies show that improving the skills and knowledge of child care providers measurably improves the quality of care children receive. The providers themselves develop more pride and satisfaction from their work. Everybody wins, including the parents who are working."

Cooperative Extension provides training and information to a wide range of contracting industries, from landscape installers at Lake Tahoe to radon mitigators and green industry professionals throughout the state. The training workers or contractors receive helps them build and expand their business but also allows them to provide a key environmental or public-health service. Cooperative Extension’s Living with Fire program, for instance, plans to soon start certifying contractors on how to properly improve a home or landscape’s ability to withstand a wildfire; once certified, contractors will be better qualified to expand their range of services, and homeowners will have more experts to turn to to protect their homes and land.

Other UNCE programs save employers and governments money by helping seniors become more self-sufficient and keeping workers out of the hospital. This year, for example, Cooperative Extension will launch a new program called "Eat Healthy, Be Active," an online chronic disease and risk-reduction program emphasizing nutrition, physical activity and injury prevention. The target will be employees who work for small companies that can’t afford high-quality health and wellness training but are nevertheless hurt by health-related absenteeism or declining working productivity.

Louise Helton is not surprised to learn about the many programs that Extension is conducting. Even before she started her own business, Helton had turned to Cooperative Extension for help when she had started nonprofit organizations addressing such issues as Nevada’s high school dropout rate and preschool education for at-risk children.

"I have always turned to Cooperative Extension to help others," Helton said. "So it’s really no surprise that when I needed help for myself that Extension was also there for me."

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