Small businesses across the Norton Sound—from existing shop owners to aspiring entrepreneurs—are sharing more than $127,000 thanks to the latest round of Small Business Initiative Grants from the Norton Sound Economic Development Corporation.
The SBI grants are an annual event, and this year, three winners from Nome and a fourth business in Brevig Mission beat out a field of 23 proposals to take home the winning money, as well as a new laptop with business software installed.
Five finalists were selected and flown to Unalakleet for a weekend of presentations, which were voted on by judges from Gambell, Unalakleet, and Nome. In the end, only four winners were chosen, similar to the distribution of the SBI grant last year.
Aspiring barber Matthew Medlin and his “Cool Cutz” barber shop were among the winners. Medlin said he went to high school in Nome and worked in North Carolina for the past decade before working on his barber skills in Anchorage. Medlin was awarded just $22,653 to start his business, which he said isn’t just about cutting hair for a mostly male clientele, but also attending to something common and popular in Alaska: beards.
“We actually did a survey of Nome residents, and I heard from the younger guys, guys in their 20s or so, those are the kind of guys who are keeping it nice and trim year-round,” Medlin said of hirsute Alaskans. “Then, definitely during the spring and summer seasons, they’ll be wanting to take those beards off.”
Other winners with this year’s SBI grant are Steve Smith, who received $35,000 to establish a Toyo stove service and repair shop in Nome that serves the Norton Sound region. Also receiving a large sum (of $34,975) is the “F and T Store” started by Freida Tocktoo and Terrence Southall from Brevig Mission, who are aiming to start a general store to serve the needs of Brevig residents.
But the SBI isn’t just for businesses looking to get their start; existing companies can also use the grant to expand.
Sandra Rowe with Nome’s “Animal House” pet care business knows the SBI well. She took advantage of the grant seven years ago to dig a well that now supplies her shop with water. This year, she’s been awarded $35,000 to again expand, this time to offer much-needed vet services to the region with a unique model that would let visiting vets have what they need right in Nome.
“Basically, we’d like to set it up here so that a veterinarian is able to travel up, without carrying a bunch of stuff, without making a bunch of preparations, and stay for a length of time,” Rowe said. “And then [the vet can] leave and not have to have a lot of stuff to carry back with them.”
Both Medlin and Row said the SBI grant was an important part of getting their business off the ground, or helping take it to the next level.
“I’d like to see more people going after the SBI grant, tell you the truth,” Medlin said. “It’s something that NSEDC has been putting on for a while now. You’ve gotta put in the work, you gotta have a sound business plan, but in the end of it, it’s all worth it. You could be your own boss and have a business.”
Rowe agreed that the grant made otherwise impossible expansions realistic.
“The grant is a huge help, for sure. If we didn’t have the help from NSEDC it could take us years to come up with some kind of money to start something,” she said. “It makes an amazing difference.”
NSEDC has awarded nearly $900,000 to 40 recipients in the Norton Sound area in the years it’s offered the SBI grant. This year the overall funding for the award grew from $105,000 to $150,000. The four winners took home 85 percent of the funds with their winning bids.