The morning after the Southwest Virginia Economic Forum, Sandy Ratliff was atop her tractor in the middle of a field when a thunderclap stopped her in her tracks.

An idea struck to drum up a local pitch contest for small businesses akin to a miniature Shark Tank. Plans for the Hard Rock Casino in Bristol, Virginia, had been formally announced, and dreams of possibility overtook nearly all her thoughts. She imagined the future and the chance to bring about some of the opportunity lost from the region in years past.

Having worked in economic development for more than 30 years, Sandy was well-positioned at Locus to deliver not only funding for women and minority business owners through a grant from Truist, but technical assistance, education, and networking opportunities.

Working closely with frequent collaborator Carl Knoblock of the Virginia Small Business Administration, Sandy set about designing both the pitch and the program for a relationship between local partners and the casino.

She brought in Community Innovation Advisor Billie Roberts and met the head of procurement at Hard Rock to devise a strategy for building relationships between the international conglomerate and local businesses. Creating and nurturing relationships is a natural area of exceptional expertise in Southwest Virginia and one from which other regions would have much to learn.

Acting as a resource in multiple capacities, Sandy and Carl brought in important local partners to advance the mission thoughtfully and productively. The teams at Friends of Southwest Virginia | Round the Mountain Artisan Network, the Virginia Tourism Corporation, local Virginia Small Business Development Centers, and the Virginia Highlands Small Business Incubator were involved from the initial stages of planning through execution. All community partners were integral to the success of the project.

The opportunity included a chance to win one of five $10,000 grants for small business expansion and consideration to be a vendor with the casino and resort once completed. To qualify, applicants were required to enter beyond start-up stage (over two years), reside within the ARC, and be led by a woman or minority business owner. Candidates had to complete an application and create a short video explaining their plans for growth.

Over the course of several months, the team reached out to hundreds upon hundreds of local business owners. Newspapers ran stories, local networks broadcasted interviews, and over 1,300 members of the community weighed in on their favorites to win.

Within a short time frame, a group of applicants came forward to be considered. From that group, 17 advanced to the second round and were considered for an in-person pitch to Hard Rock Bristol President Allie Evangelista and a panel of judges that included Locus CFO Clyde Cornett. Even candidates who were not selected to win funding would come away with new relationships and resources to make their businesses grow. The effort could be a case study in collaboration and expansive thinking.

Before pitching in person began, Sandy and team made certain that business owners within the cohort had every possible resource to succeed. Over many weeks, they coached contest participants to clarify their purposes, quantify their plans, complete complex vendor procurement forms, and meet deadlines, along with additional support unique to each business owner. The pitches came through the program with pride of place and creativity in spades.

Sandy led the entire affair with unrivaled enthusiasm and dedication to the work of community development. On the night of final pitches, in person, she said,

“As the first pitch contest of its kind organized in Virginia, this has been one of my favorite economic and small business development projects. The Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Bristol is bringing opportunities for our community in addition to added tax revenue. It’s a win-win for everyone.”

Having the creativity to see beyond obstacles is a unique talent that comes naturally to Sandy Ratliff. Striving for and accepting nothing less than win-win outcomes can be an arduous task (even when talented), but it is a necessary mindset for innovation.

As the contest concluded, the response from the community rang out as a resounding success. Plans for additional pitch contests now ensue in Southwest Virginia, with additional replicable opportunities possible in Danville, Portsmouth and Norfolk.

Locus will continue to serve as a catalyst for innovative community development with efforts to advance job creation and economic prosperity. Dedicated servant leaders like Sandy Ratliff, Carl Knoblock, Billie Roberts, and all partners involved in the contest make the work possible.

To partner with the Community Solutions Team at Locus or learn more about the project, contact Sandy Ratliff or Billie Roberts. To view the small business pitch videos or learn about the candidates and winners, click here.

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