UA Network Helps Marion Residents Catch Entrepreneurial Fever
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – There may be a recession going on in Alabama and the nation, but you wouldn’t know it from looking at downtown Marion, county seat of Perry County in the heart of the state’s Black Belt.
When Frankie Oglesby decided to buy a strip of buildings along Washington Street near the town square, people thought she had gone mad. Oglesby made the purchase, she said, because the buildings were in such disrepair, with fallen-in roofs, that she was sick of looking at them.
The long-vacant buildings Oglesby bought in 2000 have been transformed into five sharp-looking businesses, all with owners who hope, as Oglesby does, to see Marion become a thriving small town. This transformation has been possible, in part, she said, because of the availability of the business and financial resources provided to Marion residents by UA’s Alabama Entrepreneurial Research Network, known as AERN.
Oglesby and her tenants are not the only ones reaping benefits from AERN. New business owners all over the city are making use of the guidance AERN provides for planning and operating in small towns. A restaurant, a banquet hall, clothing stores and other businesses have also benefitted.
John Martin, executive director of the Perry County Chamber of Commerce, said Mia Bella’s, a clothing boutique in one of Oglesby’s buildings, was in business within 30 days after its first plan was drawn up, a testimony to AERN’s vitalness.
Oglesby’s tenants have taken advantage of the resources that AERN has set up in Marion, including one computer program that helps small business owners lay out a plan. The program is very user-friendly, Oglesby said, and very helpful.
“It is very impressive to show up to the bank with a plan on paper when trying to get financial aid for the business,” she said.
Oglesby has helped to jump start the process, according to Martin. “Frankie has been one of the prime movers,” Martin said. “She has put her money where her mouth is in restoring downtown.”
The first project Oglesby took on after she moved to Marion in 2000 was to put Marion’s power lines underground. However, since her efforts were thwarted by a lack of interest in the town square area, she decided to find a way to bring more people downtown.
Her first step was to buy buildings off the town square. She wanted to develop the space into retail stores, but first she had to renovate the buildings. Lessons Oglesby learned from an AERN workshop in 2001 came in handy after the buildings’ roofs were repaired and the rest of the remodeling was finished. The workshop, she said, taught attendees about the process of creating a business plan.
“We learned what to look for, what to think about,” she said.
Shortly thereafter, she opened Blue Byrd & Co. Each of 11 dealers has his or her own small space inside Blue Byrd where they sell antiques and high-quality used items. Then she was ready to find tenants for the remaining buildings. The first came in the summer of 2003, a gift shop named Tallulah’s.
Mia Bella’s and a shoe store, The Shoe Boutique, followed, and then Bronaugh’s replaced Tallulah’s on the corner of Washington and Green Street. Soon, a beauty salon will fill the place of an art gallery owned by Oglesby, the last space in her buildings.
As gas prices increased, Mia Turner and husband, Robert, noticed that many Perry County residents had to go to neighboring cities, such as Tuscaloosa, to buy the things they needed.
They decided a good selection of causal and dress shoes for women, men and children was needed in downtown Marion. On December 22, 2008, The Shoe Boutique opened under their management. In addition to shoes, the boutique sells accessories, including jewelry, capes, purses and wallets.
The stories of Oglesby’s other tenants are similar. Mia Bella’s, open since December 2005, keeps Marion’s young women stocked up on fashionable juniors’ and misses’ apparel and accessories. Valerie Hinton’s store has a small boutique atmosphere with a staff that caters to individuals’ needs. Bronaugh’s sells fine tabletop gifts such as table linens and serving ware. While customers browse these specialty house ware items at Bronaugh’s, they can enjoy a coffee or espresso drink from Finney’s behind-the-counter coffee service.
Lloyd Anderson and Blake Barnes opened their antique shop down the street from Oglesby’s properties in August 2007 in a building which used to house a hardware business. They converted the back half of the space Anderson owns into an apartment with a loft above. Anderson, an advocate of combining commercial and residential space, said they focused on the loft to encourage others in Marion to live downtown and own businesses. The business side of the space focuses on a diverse selection of antiques and collectibles, including empire-style furnishings, which were typical in the antebellum houses that abound in and around Marion.
Oglesby said restoring downtown buildings has helped preserve the history of Marion. “If that section of buildings was torn down, it would ruin the town square atmosphere,” she said.
AERN is a partnership of rural Alabama counties and faculty, staff and students of The University of Alabama, currently with 14 member counties. AERN provides business resources to organizations like chambers of commerce and industrial development agencies whose mission includes business development. These organizations in turn make the resources available to the public. UA joins with its county partners to offer workshops, seminars and one-on-one assistance to the public.
A Web site (http://aern.cba.ua.edu/) makes many of these and other resources available to the public. Principal funders include Culverhouse College of Commerce and Business Administration, the Alabama Legislature, the Delta Regional Authority, the Appalachian Regional Commission, the Alabama Institute of Commerce, the U.S. Small Business Administration and The University of Alabama Provost’s Office.
Editors Note: Photos available upon request
The University of Alabama, a student-centered research university, is experiencing significant growth in both enrollment and academic quality. This growth, which is positively impacting the campus and the state's economy, is in keeping with UA's vision to be the university of choice for the best and brightest students. UA, the state's flagship university, is an academic community united in its commitment to enhancing the quality of life for all Alabamians.