With the shrinking of the Mid-Ohio Valley’s fabled “Chemical Alley” and the uncertain future of oil and gas jobs coming to the area, the tough economic reality is that, in order for our region to thrive, folks are going to have to get creative. Many argue unique, locally-grown small businesses have great potential for filling in at least part of the gap.
That’s the thinking behind Launchpad 2017. The energy was undeniable on September 19 at the Parkersburg Art Center, which was the site of the second annual event in which thirteen new and prospective business startups vied for the grand prize of $5000 in seed money, courtesy of the Mid-Ohio Valley Regional Council. From 5pm to 6pm, a reception hosted by the Chamber of Commerce gave the public a chance to get to know the folks behind the businesses and find out why they felt they were worthy of the financial boost. Everyone who signed in was given a map and an envelope filled with $10,000. Sadly, the money was of the play variety. But it served a serious purpose. After touring the various displays, everyone had a chance to put their (play) money where their mouth was by divvying up their cash as they saw fit. They could give it all to one company or spread the wealth among several. The startups that received the top six amounts got to make a presentation to the Council. Finally, one company would be chosen to receive the grant.
The crowds were so large I didn’t get a chance to talk to everyone, but the ones with whom I did get to spend time were highly remarkable. My first stop was at the booth of Wonder Valley Farm in Roane County. In the interest of full disclosure, one of the two people who started Wonder Valley, Sierra Cox, is a beloved former student of mine and I fully own the fact I’m prejudiced. Be that as it may, she and her partner, John Pennacchio, gave a thoroughly impressive presentation about what they hope will be one of the “premier agritourism destinations in West Virginia.” And I have no doubt they will succeed.
Also making a strong showing was a more local company called Catered Whims. Chef and owner Steven Roberts explained that his is what he believes will be the only fully customized catering service in the area. There will be no pre-set menus. Instead, he’ll sit down with prospective clients and allow them to explain exactly what they want, creating a menu together. His goal will be to locally source as many items as possible, which will further boost the local economy and allow him to give the best price possible.
Joseph Blackhurst, president of Bee Haven Supply, gave a powerful argument for the worth of his company, which specializes in providing local beekeepers with all the supplies they need to build and maintain their hives and gather honey. He also carries honey from his clients. He told me his main goal, should he win the money, was to buy honey extraction equipment, which would allow him to provide extraction and canning services for local beekeepers, something he would do essentially for free in exchange for a portion of the honey he retrieves. He also hopes to increase an already extant educational platform that involves going into local schools to promote beekeeping for business and environmental purposes.
By a crazy coincidence, the last startup I got to learn about was the one that ended up winning the top prize. Pastry and Petals, despite the name, is a full-service restaurant located just 25 feet from the Rails-To-Trails in Cairo, WV. Kay Mullenix, the owner, bought out the previous owner and plans to expand into a vacant room next door, allowing her to open a second dining room. She said it started as a bakery, but then she decided to add lunch and dinner items, but only serving one specific dish each day. Eventually, she widened the selection until she now has a full menu, including what I’m told are some delicious desserts.
Despite not winning the $5000, each company seemed to take full advantage of the networking opportunity afforded by Launchpad 2017. If the energy and innovation displayed by all of these good people is any indication of the direction in which the Mid-Ohio Valley is heading, the future looks quite bright.