Cherre Metcalf, salon manager at Indulge and Tanning in North Mankato, still remembers the intensity and excitement when the idea for Connecting Commerce was born.
“We came together at the city building, just some businesses from around Commerce and South Central, and started throwing around the association idea, asking, ‘What would that look like? What would we do?’” said Metcalf. “There was so much passion in the group!”
Connecting Commerce was formed in the fall of 2019. Jason Tompkins, owner of Ignition Fitness, is the president; Heidi Wyn, owner of the Curiosi-Tea House, became secretary; Amber Bannerman, owner of Sota Sisters, was officer at large; and Metcalf became treasurer. Councilman Jim Whitlock, who founded Business on Belgrade in lower North Mankato in 2004, was there for those early conversations.
We came together at the city building, just some businesses from around Commerce and South Central, and started throwing around the association idea, asking, ‘What would that look like? What would we do?’ There was so much passion in the group!Cherre Metcalf
“Businesses on Belgrade was created out of a need,” Whitlock said. “The grocery store and convenience stores had just closed, and the area was turning into rats and weeds. Something had to be done. I brought it to the city, and they kind of handed it back to me: ‘Well, what can you do?’”
So, when the founding members of Connecting Commerce asked Whitlock for input, he gave them the same response the city had given him.
“Basically, all I did was sit and listen and guide, but it needed to be their creation, not mine,” he said. “I told them, ‘I want you to think and make it your own.’”
A new association
The upper North Mankato business community is a little different than the rest of greater Mankato. Heidi Wyn’s Curiosi-Tea House was formerly located on Riverfront Drive in Mankato and was a member of the Old Town business association. Wyn said the needs and styles of the two associations are very different.
“When I moved to North Mankato, I had people coming in just to welcome me and tell me they were my neighbor,” Wyn said. “They wanted to say ‘Hi,’ wished me well and said they would tell their friends and neighbors to check us out as well. I think this is because of the difference in size of each city. Commerce Drive businesses are not right next door to one another, as the area covers a larger stretch of ground, so you can’t run next door as easily to talk to your fellow business owners to collaborate or visit.”
After the development project on Commerce Drive in 2019, including pedestrian friendly streetscaping and installations of public art, the local businesses were ready to utilize their more walkable space.
“Before, people didn’t slow down and look when they went down Commerce,” Metcalf said. “The beautification project has made it easier to walk, and the art has made the space more enjoyable.”
Commerce Drive businesses are not Right next door to one another, as the area covers a larger stretch of ground, so you can’t run next door as easily to talk to your fellow business owners to collaborate or visit.Heidi Wyn
The group began narrowing down what kind of events it would like to provide for its community.
“With such diversified talents, it’s kind of limitless,” said Metcalf. “What would we take our family to? That’s what we want to provide.”
The brand-new association hosted its first event for the community in October 2019, a Trick-or-Treat event that spanned upper North Mankato. It has since hosted its own Shop Small event, a raffle supporting North Mankato firefighters, the Connecting Commerce Virtual 5K and its second annual Trick-or-Treat event.
“What I like about Connecting Commerce is they’re having fun runs,” Whitlock said. “They’re emphasizing physical health and well-being.”
Already, Connecting Commerce is seeing impressive growth in attendance. Its 2019 Halloween event had about 80 trick-or-treaters. This year, there were more than 400.
“It was literally a parade of costumes!” Metcalf said.
All too quickly after forming, Connecting Commerce was faced with the incredible challenges of COVID-19.
“Many of the businesses have been affected,” Metcalf said. “A lot of us were closed for two months, then when reopening the restrictions have made it difficult to entice or even offer our full services and space to the public. Most have bounced back, but for some it is slower than others.”
During the two months it was unable to open, Indulge shipped and delivered its products. Not every business was able to do that.
“I do think for small businesses, it’s a big pill to swallow to go e-commerce,” Metcalf said. “The hard thing for business owners is, we don’t want to beg, but we are so, so thankful. Indulge is family owned. There’s a family behind this. Every purchase made during that time was so vital and special to us. Every order we got was heartwarming.”
“It’s real. But this too will pass,” said Whitlock, who just recently had family members test positive for COVID-19. “We will get over COVID, and the businesses will be able to bounce back.”
Indulge is family owned. There’s a family behind this. Every purchase made during that time was so vital and special to us. Every order we got was heartwarming.Cherre Metcalf
Slowly and carefully, the businesses of Connecting Commerce have been able to open their doors. Spaces like Indulge already meet Board of Cosmetology standards of sanitation, so it had fewer changes to make than the average business. Dividers have been installed, and stations on the salon floor are mobile so social distancing is easier. The business even dedicated a separate room for visitors who are immune compromised.
Other businesses, such as Curioisi-Tea, have also found ways to slowly and safely reopen. Wyn said this situation has affected what Connecting Commerce has been able to offer at the present time, but members are still looking forward to the future.
“We spent time creating a strategic plan, but really many of those things we are unable to follow through with because of COVID,” she said. “Still, we hope to grow the association by adding more business and coming up with creative ideas to engage with one another and the community.”
The challenges Connecting Commerce has faced in its first year only reiterate how important it is for small businesses have a collective organization to support one another and their community.
“Our goal has always been to be a supportive collective that has each other’s back and refers and helps our neighbor,” said Metcalf. “How great to know that there’s another small business who has been in the same place as you?”
Slowly but steadily, the organization is making plans for the future. Metcalf said that people can support Connecting Commerce by attending events, liking and following the group’s Facebook page, and joining in the monthly social hour. Starting January 2021, the group will hold a Zoom meeting for any and all businesses in upper North Mankato to attend.
Our goal has always been to be a supportive collective that has each other’s back and refers and helps our neighbor. How great to know that there’s another small business who has been in the same place as you?Cherre Metcalf
There are currently four businesses officially participating in Connecting Commerce, but the group is aiming to grow. For business owners interested in joining the group, Metcalf said the process is simple.