“Go get it”: Trying to spur entrepreneurism in International Falls

Stephanie Heinle bought the Coffee Landing café in downtown International Falls because she was tired of waiting tables. “I was 40 and waitressing and I wanted some kind of retirement plan,” said the city native, who co-owns the café with her husband, Tim. “At 40, I was lucky enough to get away with wearing a mini skirt. I didn’t even want to see myself at 50 in a mini skirt. I had to come up with something.”

She took over the coffee shop in 2010 and says business is good and getting better all the time. Handmade food is key. Ask anybody in town where to get a good Reuben, and they’ll send you to Coffee Landing. “I always say, ‘I can guarantee high-quality food for a reasonable price with OK service,” said Heinle. “Everybody laughs. I have been in the service industry my whole life. I would do anything to make people happy in a restaurant environment.”

Heinle’s café sits about a block from the enormous Boise paper mill, which anchors the city and is its leading employer. A few weeks ago, Boise completed a round of layoffs that cost 265 workers their jobs, a major topic of discussion around town and inside the cafe. “People are coming in and talking,” Heinle said. “We have them all. We have the big wigs, we have the workers. It’s a meeting spot with all of them mixed up.”

The economic blow has city and county officials, as well a regular citizens and business owners, thinking about how to make International Falls more entrepreneurial. Mayor Bob Anderson and others have established a set of committees exploring paths toward economic diversity. There are various new businesses in town, like Swanky Sweet Pea, which sells bath goods designed to look like dessert items, and a new health club. But locals want to see more.

The streets in downtown International Falls, Minn. on Tuesday, September 24, 2013. (Derek Montgomery for MPR News)

The city has always relied heavily on the century-old Boise mill. And the trajectory of life in International Falls has often involved working there. A person got on at the plant, bought a house and car and boat, and maybe a hunting shack. They went into debt, but expected to work for decades at a good wage to pay it all off. But now, especially with a pending sale of the mill to Illinois-based Packaging Corporation of America, that future seems harder to grasp.

“This is not strong entrepreneurial culture,” said Paul Nevanen, director of the Koochiching Economic Development Authority (KEDA). “We’re trying to get at that. It takes a long time. We are hoping people will take control of their destiny by trying to become an entrepreneur.”

Koochiching County Economic Development Authority Director Paul Nevanen (MPR photo by Derek Montgomery)

Some think the Boise layoffs could spur former mill workers to start their own businesses. That’s what Bonita Korzinski, who was laid off in July, plans to do. She’s going to school to be a financial adviser and is determined to work in International Falls. “I always think when one door closes another opens,” she said. “I’m optimistic.”

“I think a lot of people will open their own businesses,” Korzinski said. “You don’t have to worry about being laid off and what will I do next. A lot of people in town are talented and able to do a lot of stuff.”

When Heinle thought she wanted to buy Coffee Landing, the first person she called was Jenny Herman at the Small Business Development Center (SBDC), not far from the café. The center is a partnership between the University of Minnesota Duluth’s Center for Economic Development and KEDA. “She and I put this together,” said Heinle, who received help writing a business plan and landing a loan for equipment. “She said I am her model client. Jenny is so good for our community. I can’t say enough.”

Herman has run the local SBDC since 2007. The job was part time at first, but because of demand for her services, has become full time. Often her role is to apply real-world skepticism to big ideas. “My goal is that the businesses they start are successful,” said Herman, who is originally from Green Bay, Wis. “I don’t want them to put money into a business that won’t be successful. As much as we want new business here, they have to be successful.”

The northeast regional SBDC network, of which Herman is part, served 465 entrepreneurs and businesses throughout the arrowhead and created or saved 1,187 jobs, according to a 2012 annual report. The network helped launch 28 new businesses in 2012. During the same year, Herman counseled 80 clients, helped launch two businesses and created 15 jobs.

Herman said that since the layoffs, only a few former Boise employees have come in to talk about starting businesses. “But I expect more. I think we will see that down the road,” once people have completed training efforts and gotten over the shock of being unemployed.

School kids are part of the effort, too. Herman is trying to broaden the culture in International Falls by getting students to think more expansively about their futures. In the last several years, she helped launch a program that puts CEOs in area classrooms to talk about their jobs and a local version of Junior Achievement, a national teaching effort focused on entrepreneurship and economic literacy.

“The message we send to these kids is, ‘You need to have more than a high school education to be successful,” said Herman. “The mining industry and paper mills want additional education when they hire. Kids are not going to be able to graduate high school and get into the mill. People used to be able to do that.”

Some think an entrepreneurial culture is emerging in International Falls, however slowly. “I think it’s becoming more of a networking community,” said Hollie Bahr, a local who moved away after high school but returned in 2006. A trained massage therapist, she started a business in 2010 called Local Relief. “When I first moved back, I saw this large population of competition. It was frustrating for me to see, when we are all trying to pay our bills. We’re living in a small community, why wouldn’t we embrace each other and encourage growth? I’m starting to see more of that.”

Moving back to International Falls, Bahr said, was “exciting because it meant getting to educate a new culture about what massage therapy can do.” Now she has a handful of other therapists working out of her studio as independent contractors. “There is a new emphasis on health and wellness in International Falls.”

Swanky Sweet Pea owner RaeAnne Conat (MPR News photo/Derek Montgomery)

RaeAnne Conat, who owns Swanky Sweet Pea, is friends with Bahr and also sees a friendlier atmosphere in town for entrepreneurs, at least in her circle. “We all have these ideas and are looking to work off each other,” she said. “There is so much talent and so many little tiny businesses in this town that nobody knows about.”

Several years ago, Herman launched a women’s business group. She brings in speakers from the business world to share their experiences over lunch. “It’s just really casual,” she said.

A self-employment evangelist in her own right, Heinle wants to begin selling the coffee beans her husband roasts to customers around the world. She says people are always talking about starting businesses, but are afraid to give up a paycheck. “All the time when I’m talking to people and they are stuck, I am like, ‘What do you want to do? What do you want to be? Start a business.”

“If I’m at the hair salon and a girl there says, ‘I want to have my own salon,’ I say, ‘Go get it.’ I say, ‘You don’t even have to get into your car. Just walk into KEDA and they will take you step by step through everything you want to do.’”

“We don’t want to be stuck counting on Boise,” Heinle said. “We have everything we need. Whether Boise is there or not, people still need to eat and shop. We need to not get into the rut. We need to keep on trudging the happy roads of destiny.”

“We need to keep going.”