Small town businesses adapt to Internet economy

HAYS, KS -- Some small town businesses and entrepreneurs in Kansas, determined not to be left behind, are using innovative strategies to incorporate the Internet in their business plans and promotions, proving that remote location doesn't necessarily mean being out of touch with the modern world.

Take Dan Morgan for instance. A graduate of Kansas State University, Morgan returned to the family farm in Greeley, KS, three years ago and decided to put his dad's Angus bull farm on the Internet. Most people do not associate e-commerce with farming or livestock, but Morgan says each year sees an increase in web traffic, with half of all their catalog requests now coming from their site,

"We see it as an expansion of our advertising efforts, except that now we reach a lot wider area, with greater detail, for a lot less money," says Morgan.

The on-line experiences of small business owners from rural communities in Kansas will be the focus of a panel presentation hosted by Fort Hays State University, on Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2000, in Hays, KS.

"Growing e-Commerce in Your Backyard" is a part of the Telepower, 2000 conference sponsored by the university's Docking Institute of Public Affairs. Several small business owners and research presenters will join together to highlight strategies and success stories for e-commerce in small towns.

Mark Mingenback, owner of Brentwood Ltd. in Great Bend, and one of the conference panelists, certainly sees the Internet as a way to increase profits of his brick-and-mortar clothing store.

"Most of my customers don't come shopping on Tuesday afternoons. Yet I've got the store open then, employees on staff, the same expenses," says Mingenback of his reasoning for starting an on-line gift service catalog. Mingenback's early vision about e-tailing has helped his company survive the ever-changing economy. Now he uses his staff and store space during downtime for taking and filling on-line orders worldwide -- Wallabean Jellybeans to Australia, Brigitine Monk's fudge to Chile, windsocks to Switzerland.

"And best of all," says Mingenback, "it's all profit!"

"E-commerce is here to stay," says Nancy Stark, director of Community and Economic Development at the National Center for Small Communities in Washington, DC, and another speaker at the conference.

"Small-town businesses must either ride the wave or face a sinking ship," she says.

A Southern Illinois University survey in 1998 on small businesses and the Internet found that small firms that use the Internet -- to communicate with customers, market their product and make purchases -- are growing, on average, by 9.8 percent a year. Companies that ignore the web and lack computers are growing only 5.5 percent a year.

Small towns also have their share of web-entrepreneurs, and if the high speed connection is there, success is often just around the corner. In March of 1999, Dave Gray of Colby, KS, initially set a goal of one on-line sale per day for his Affordable Supplements web site.

"We hit that goal quickly and have been growing ever since," says Gray of his Internet sports supplement retail business, which is on track to gross $750,000 this year.

"We started with a zero dollar advertising budget and it hasn't gone up much," says Gray. "Our main emphasis has been customer service and self-promotion." calls Gray's web site ) "a great on-line shopping experience."

The e-commerce panel is part of the Docking Institute's ninth annual Telepower conference, which features how small and rural communities throughout Kansas can use information technology and telecommunications for economic and community development.

"We have a strong focus on e-commerce and business this year," says Cathy Drabkin, the conference coordinator. "We anticipate nearly 200 economic development officials, chamber of commerce representatives, business consultants, government officials, and community leaders will attend. We've tried to provide real-world information and practical strategies that rural leaders can take back home with them."

The two-day conference features more than 35 presenters, addressing such topics as attracting IT entrepreneurs, using technology-led economic development strategies, encouraging local e-business to business, developing e-government services, setting up telemedicine, and the advantages of long distance education.

A public debate on Internet sales tax will take place on the evening of Oct. 18, with Don Moler, executive director of the League for Kansas Municipalities, and Erick Gustafson, director of Telecommunications Policies with Citizens for a Sound Economy, facing off on the controversial issue.

Keynote speaker Christopher McLean, administrator of the USDA Rural Utilities Service, will provide the closing keynote address on "Bridging the Digital Divide in Rural America."

This year's underwriting sponsors, whose support helps bring in conference speakers from around the country while keeping registration affordable for small towns and organizations, are the Hays Medical Center, Southwestern Bell Telephone and Kansas Technology Enterprise Corporation.

Conference corporate and contributing sponsors include Rural Telephone, Kansas Health Foundation, Sykes Enterprises, BV Solutions Group, Garden City Information Technology Cooperative, Information Network of Kansas, Westlink Communications, Utilicorp United, Sunflower Electric Power Cooperative and the Kansas Department of Commerce and Housing.

The conference will be held Oct. 18 and 19 on the campus of Fort Hays State University in Hays, KS.

Registration for the event is $99. For more information, or for a conference brochure, call the Docking Institute at (785) 628-5952. The conference web site is located at .

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