'Where wealth is created' New adviser to help Valley's small businesses succeed

Joe Jacobs is prepared to bring a lifetime of experience to his job as head of Walla Walla's new Small Business Development Center.

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As a young boy on his family's dairy goat farm in Northwestern Oregon, Joe Jacobs, the director of Walla Walla's recently born-again Small Business Development Center, developed a work ethic.

Up at 6 every morning, he hand-milked about a dozen goats in a cycle that would repeat itself in the evenings

Rain or shine.

Holidays and weekends, too.

He later learned about service and consistency as a food service specialist in the U.S. Army; the importance of planning when his post-collegiate vision of starting his own assisted living facility didn't materialize; flexibility working as an account executive for corporate food companies; and taking risks as the owner of his own inert landfill and roll-off trucking company.

One of the biggest lessons of all he picked up while working on a proposed winery and event center: "Sometimes the best decision in business is not to move forward with a project," the goatee-sporting Jacobs reflected. "How great is it to know that before something gets built?"

The road to Walla Walla's Small Business Development Center took him from that childhood farm in Sherwood, Ore., to Spokane and most recently the Tri-Cities, where he served as operations specialist for CH2M Hill before the end of the Recovery Act funds that helped create his position.

In Walla Walla, Jacobs said he has landed his "dream job." One where he can tap the benefit of his experience -- as well as a vast network of resources -- to help advise local business operators in free one-on-one sessions.

"It's kind of amazing how all my experiences in life helped prepare me for this job," Jacobs marveled during a recent interview behind a cubicled wall at his temporary office in the Port of Walla Walla's headquarters.

It's been more than a year since the community had such a business service.

Walla Walla's Small Business Development Center operated for years within the Washington Small Business Development Center network. At the end of 2008, the network did not renew its partnership with Walla Walla Community College, which was one of its funding sources.

But the local office continued to operate with funding from the college, Port of Walla Walla and Washington State University. When the state budget was socked in the recession, the colleges cut their contributions, and the office closed in April 2010.

A local initiative to revive the office so impressed the Spokane-based state director for the Washington network that he worked to find funding in the budget to help restore the operation.

"We don't have another community in the state that has embraced the idea of a Small Business Development Center like Walla Walla," said state Director Brett Rogers. "It's amazing how many people down there -- from community leaders to bankers to government agencies -- who really see the value the Small Business Development Center can bring ...."

Jacobs joins a network of 26 other business advisers across the state. Their expertise comes from a variety of sectors, including manufacturing, engineering, high-tech innovation, retail sales and business management. Any questions Jacobs may not be able to answer on his own can be posed to others in the network.

The service provides assistance in the form of guidance and resources to businesses. In 2011, advisers across Washington state met with more than 2,800 small-business owners, Rogers said. They developed ongoing advising relationships with nearly 90 percent of them. Clients, he said, credited advisers with helping to create or save more than 600 jobs, 118 new businesses and secure nearly $30 million in capital.

The network includes four international trade specialists who assist small-business clients who are either new to export or considering expanding their current export operations.

The Walla Walla Small Business Development Center is part of a collaboration between local agencies and the Small Business Development Center Network, an economic development program of Washington State University and the U.S. Small Business Administration.

The budget is estimated at $120,000 to $130,000. Half of that is federal funding. The other half is local from financial or in-kind contributions, officials have said.

The Downtown Walla Walla Foundation will be the fiscal agent for the center, on behalf of Partnership Walla Walla, an organization of local agencies including the Port of Columbia, cities of Waitsburg, Walla Walla and College Place, Tourism Walla Walla, the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance, Walla Walla Valley Chamber of Commerce, Walla Walla Community College, Downtown Walla Walla Foundation and Milton-Freewater Community Development Partnership.

Jacobs, who plans to relocate from the Tri-Cities, where his youngest is still in high school, already sees demand for the services since he started in early January.

He's been contacted by people considering starting three different businesses and two manufacturers trying to break into new export markets. "I'm really finding the Walla Walla Valley to be a fertile place to start and grow a business," he said.

He's had meetings with representatives of local banks, government agencies and nonprofit organizations. One of the first calls he fielded was from an older business owner seeking guidance on how to build her digital footprint.

Though not yet clear on specific challenges facing the Walla Walla Valley as a whole, Jacobs said he has discovered one of its greatest benefits: the sense of community itself.

"I'm really finding the Walla Walla Valley to be a fertile place to start and grow a business," he said. "My job is to help. Small business is really the engine that drives our economy. That's where wealth is created."

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