Local businesses highlighted in regional competition

On Monday organizers of the regional business development competition Path to Prosperity announced their 12 finalists for 2018, three of which come from Petersburg and Wrangell.

Focused on encouraging entrepreneurship in Southeast Alaska communities, P2P is a programming partnership between Spruce Root Inc. and The Nature Conservancy. The latter is an environmental organization centered in Arlington, Virginia, while the former is a rebranding of Haa Aaní Economic Development and its associated community development fund, projects supported by Sealaska Corporation in Juneau.

In addition to small loans and capital support, Spruce Root's P2P competition entices regional business owners to develop new ventures to increase profitability and employment, while also making use of local resources in a sustainable fashion. For the past six years, the competition selects from its pool of applicants a dozen stand-out proposals, with finalists brought to Juneau for a several-day business boot camp and entrepreneurial guidance.

After honing out finished business plans, one applicant is selected for a capital grant, this year in the amount of $25,000. Those resources can go toward the awardee's business to help with consultancy fees, marketing or other development.

Wrangell residents have been among awardees in recent P2P competitions, such as for local agricultural start-up Mighty Bear Roots last year and Raven Guitars in 2014. Another resident is among this year's finalists, Angie Flickinger of Gathered & Grown Botanicals.

"I create hand-crafted herbal bath and body care products built around locally-harvested plants," she explained of her business. "Each product is meant to establish a deeper connection with the natural world, so that you get some of the inherent benefits of some of the plants that grow around here, and also sort of the sensory experience."

For instance, one of her products is a variety of bath salts mixed with area kelp and peppermint. Flickinger said the scents are "meant to transport you to the ocean, and feel like you're a little more connected to that environment, but also are good for the skin and for the body. Everything is kind of built around this sense of place and connection to our rainforest environment."

The business also features handmade soaps and infused oils. It had started for Flickinger as an interest in herbs, soon developing into a hobby. Turning the hobby into a business was a step that took on a third dimension last year when she opened up a Front Street shop called Groundswell with friend Mya DeLong, whose floral business makes up the other half of the storefront.

Among this year's P2P finalists from Petersburg is John Murgas of Petersburg Marine. He likened his business to Wrangell's Marine Service Center, an open yard smaller in scale and privately rather than municipally owned. Like their public-sector counterparts at Wrangell's Harbor Department, Petersburg Marine hauls out and prepares boats for service, projects which can be then conducted by an assortment of insured and licensed contractors.

"We have two hydraulic trailers that handle the majority of our commercial fleet here," Murgas explained. Adapting an existing waterside turnaround for aircraft to haulout use, his company acquired its first lift 10 years ago, doubling its capacity a few years ago. "Those can haul vessels up to 45 tons. So that includes all the gillnet fleet, the majority of the troll fleet," but not the larger seine fleet, he added.

"We offer pressure washing that is treated. It reduces the effluent that goes into the water from pressure washing on the grids," Murgas continued. This effluent is often more than marine growth, including paint from a vessel's previous coat.

"It's primarily cuprous oxide, which by itself is not toxic, but if you get high concentrations of it in any one area it can cause problems. In the harbor, for instance," said Murgas. His company has from the start captured this material for safe disposal, but he sees room for improvement.

"We would like to expand on that, modernize it a little bit. Some professional help on how to finance that should pay off pretty well," he thought. Murgas added that the planned bootcamp should yield some useful tips and processes on how to better manage and advertise for his business.

Fellow finalist Marja Smets also calls Petersburg home, operating Farragut Farm with husband Bo Varsano at Farragut Bay.

"This is our ninth year of business," she said. "My husband, Bo, and I have been talking about possibly expanding."

For the P2P competition Smets is proposing a venture called Blue Drum Farm, which would make use of high tunnels, a sort of cost-effective greenhouse that allows for longer growing seasons and greater crop variety.

"It's basically an urban microfarm, high-intensity production so we get a lot of food off of a small area," said Smets. "You can grow just about anything in high tunnels. It's still tricky with hot weather crops like eggplants or peppers, things that require a lot of heat. But on Farragut Farm in our high tunnels we're growing over 40 different varieties of vegetables, so there's a lot of potential to grow a wide variety of just about anything you might like.

"We feel like the model that we're looking to create could really be replicable to any of the other communities in Southeast," in effect creating a template for aspiring farmers in other communities in the region. "For years now we have been working to help the movement of increasing local food in Southeast, getting more people to think about growing in our region. We've also thought of doing some expansion of our own business, and came up with this idea for Blue Drum Farm, that might meet both those goals."

All three finalists anticipated a positive experience at the upcoming business bootcamp, and each had similar goals with it.

"We're looking forward to getting help with the numbers, and kind of coming up with a more formal business plan that can help us narrow it down," said Smets. "We've thought about doing it CSA style, or we've thought about selling more to restaurants, and we want to just work the numbers to see which option makes the most sense to have a thriving business." A CSA, or community-supported agriculture, has customers buy shares in a farm's yield ahead of the season, receiving produce as it is harvested.

"We want to do a better job at what we're doing, in particular on the environmental end of it," said Murgas. "The association with The Nature Conservancy is exciting."

"I'm excited for the bootcamp," said Flickinger. "I think it will be really good information, and just good to connect with other people who are doing something similar. I think running a business in Southeast Alaska has its own unique challenges, so it will be cool to just hear what other people are doing, what they're learning, and just to have a nice network of peers."

P2P officials are already looking for applications for the 2019 competition. Entrepreneurs interested in learning more or applying can look over their website at http://www.spruceroot.org.


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