Open for business: Entrepreneurs say Duluth receptive to fledgling companies

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Numbers are said to never lie, but when it comes to the number of jobs and businesses in the Duluth region, it does appear they can be misleading.

St. Louis County reportedly experienced a 7.2 percent drop in overall establishments over the last year, totaling a loss of 1,196 businesses, according, a national research organization that focuses on economic factors regarding business establishment, jobs and sales.

But according to the experiences of Duluth business owners, Mayor Don Ness and the people who work in area every day, these numbers do not ring true for the city of Duluth.

“It is kind of daunting, that 7.2 percent drop,” said Shawn Wellnitz, CEO of the Entrepreneur Fund based out of Duluth. “But we have been seeing modest growth in certain sectors.”

Also of note, Wellnitz said, are the numbers developed by YourEconomy that represent the whole of St. Louis county and not just the city of Duluth.

Mayor Don Ness focused on that same information when asked what he thought about the YourEconomy report.

The county is so varied and spread out that the numbers could very easily be influenced by sampling or the decline in other areas of St. Louis County, such as the rural communities or the Iron Range, according to Ness.

“I would say that (the report) is counter to what we see in the city,” Ness said. “We are seeing a lot of growth and a lot of momentum from local businesses.”

And that may be the case.

Overall, the spirit of support for local businesses in Duluth seems to be on the rise.

“There has been a significant shift over the last 10 to 15 years,” Ness said. “In the past, there was no energy to start businesses. People focused on the decline and lack of jobs available, but now people love the city of Duluth and want a life here, so they start their own businesses and take the initiative. There is a lot of pride in the uniqueness of Duluth and community support for local businesses.”

But what about those business owners? What have they noticed?

They are working in the context of these numbers every day, and if anyone would know the current state of Duluth local businesses, it would be the entrepreneurs themselves.

The owners of Duluth Coffee Company, J. Lydia Salon, and Loll Design and Epicurean weighed in on the issue.

Duluth Coffee Company

Eric Faust opened Duluth Coffee Company two years ago, and already he has had enough success that he is considering expanding his operation.

“I saw the potential to cultivate a new form of coffee and a market in the area,” Faust said of his decision to start his business in the area.“Northern Waters Smokehaus and Lake Avenue Cafe were already doing this thing with craftsmanship of food, and that is what I wanted to do with coffee. And so far, it has been working.”

His business fits right into the community, he said, and there has been no shortage of support for his micro-roastery. Organizations helped him develop a business plan and get the money together that brought his operation out of his home and onto Superior Street.

Ever since, Duluth Coffee Company has been selling its coffee to local businesses, as well as out of its shop. Faust has had the opportunity to see a lot of the community.

And in his opinion, those numbers suggesting a decline have got it all wrong.

“It seems to be growing across the board,” Faust said. “We have a business-to-business set up (where our business is selling to other businesses in the community), and people are buying more coffee, so they must be doing well. And we are selling more coffee, so we are doing well. It’s a cycle.”

J. Lydia Salon

Jona Johnson, a Duluth native, took over J. Lydia Salon on East 4th Street just over a year ago and unlike Fause, had a hard time finding resources in the community to give her a hand.

“Opening any business can be a struggle, but there is all of this stuff working with City Hall that I didn’t have any help with and didn’t know how to get help with until it was too late,” Johnson said. “It would have been nice for someone to be around to tell me what to do.”

In addition to this, major chain stores, such as Sport Clips, are popping up everywhere, making the competition a bit more difficult.

Johnson, however, is happy with her exploration into entrepreneurism.

“I think the Hillside could use some support from the city,” Johnson said. “But the community has been great, and I think it has been a good experience.”

As far as those numbers? Her opinion also falls on the side of entrepreneurs.

“There is a lot of opportunity to grow and keep people involved,” she said. “It is a day-to-day endeavor, but the opportunity is definitely there.”

Loll Design and Epicurean

Greg Benson has been a co-owner of his own business since 1997, and although the business has evolved over time -- in the type of products sold, the name of the company and the actual number of companies -- he has been working in Duluth for a long time.

Loll design and the sister company Epicurean are both very successful businesses with main offices in West Duluth. They sell their products -- outdoor furniture and kitchen supplies, respectively -- internationally.

They started as a municipal skate park design and build contractor company called TrueRide, which moved to Duluth in its infancy.

“We were so small (when we moved to Duluth) that everything fit in a semi,” Benson said. “It was kind of like moving a garage.”

And yet, starting up, their biggest problem was finding the warehouse space they needed. But once they did that, it was pretty smooth sailing.

According to Benson, the UMD Center for Economic Development and Natural Resources Research Institute were both instrumental in helping with the move to Duluth, assisting them in developing business plans and improving their manufacturing processes.

As far as the numbers from the YourEconomy report, Benson didn’t feel he could comment, but he has noticed a few things over the past 15 plus years working in Duluth.

One, there have been a lot of new businesses coming into the community over the past few years.

And two, Duluth is a great place to be working.

“My brother Dave and I went to college there,” Benson said. “It is close to outdoor recreation and the lake. It is a pretty small size and is affordable. Plus, we had ties there. It is good place to be.”

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