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Eldernet: Fairbanks program teaches senior citizens entrepreneurial skills.

A corps of retirement-age Fairbanks residents interested in supplementary income for their golden years has found an opportunity to realize that goal. The answer was entrepreneurial training and guidance this past summer, through a pilot program dubbed Eldernet.

It's a program that is not only paying off for its participants, but is drawing interest from job training agencies both in Alaska and Outside.

Taking the Plunge

Octogenarian Gladys Merrell is finally in business for herself. Armed with a business license, merchant's credit card account and the little girls' dresses she sews at home, Merrell this summer began selling her wares out of a little store on Second Avenue in downtown Fairbanks. She likes to sew anyway, she says, and with four great-granddaughters, ages 4, 5, 6 and 7, she puts in a lot of time at the sewing machine.

Although she plans to keep her paid, part-time position at the Senior Center, going the entrepreneur route can't hurt, according to Merrell. "I thought, 'Why not make some extra money?'" This past May, a week short of her 82nd birthday, she began cashing in.

At the same time, Lois Tapp, 71, re-entered the retail marketplace. Longtime residents recognize Tapp as the woman who owned the Mukluk Shop downtown for many years. Now, she is marketing her patterns for men's, women's and children's mukluks, parkas and kuspuks. Although the "By Lois" line has been for sale for several years, the ultimate goal now is to sell enough of them, herself, to be self-sufficient.

Merrell, Tapp and three dozen other colleagues -- all 55 and older -- are the first graduates of a nine-week course designed to teach retirees how to establish and run their own businesses. They range from former business owners, who knew the basics but needed to brush up on current rules and regulations, to craftspeople who are testing the retail waters with their handiwork. After years of being told their creations are worth money, they are putting that advice to the test.

Eldernet is a training, networking and cooperative marketing program. The nine-week course takes participants from writing a business plan to opening up shop. It includes lessons on such areas as recordkeeping for tax purposes and marketing and sales tips. Participants also receive business consultation services as part of the curriculum.

"It's a full, three-credit course that is an actual requirement for an associate's degree in business," according to Charlie Dexter, an associate professor with the University of Alaska Fairbanks' School of Career and Continuing Education. Dexter, who teaches the course, says credits may also be applied toward a bachelor's degree in technology, with a business emphasis.

The two-year pilot project is funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Labor's Job Training Partnership Act to the Fairbanks Private Industry Council, Community and Regional Affairs. To qualify, students must be 55 or older, Fairbanks North Star Borough residents, provide a viable product or service and meet certain income criteria.

Earning a Diploma

Graduating from the Eldernet program comes only after six hours of training per week for the full nine weeks. During that time, students arm themselves with both book knowledge and practical application skills necessary to go into business. Securing working capital proved the toughest hurdle for many of the Eldernet participants, who got much-needed assistance from Key Bank of Alaska, Dexter says.

Jerry Walker, vice president and commercial loan officer at Key Bank, served as both an advisory director to the class, as well as a bank liaison. One of his primary functions was to help Eldernet participants get the loans they needed to get operations off the ground. "We have not reduced the criteria, but we have looked at the deals very, very carefully." Loan officers walked applicants through the process, Walker says, "spending a bit more time trying to be a bit more methodical than we might otherwise have been able."

The bank did make some concessions on fees for merchant credit card accounts, he says, making them more accessible to program participants. "All those that wanted to have it could get it," he says. "The mail order (option) wouldn't work without credit card acceptance."

Graduates also received personal attention when it came time to open their business checking accounts. "There were some concessions there," according to Walker. "This program I took personal involvement in, in that it's free enterprise at work. It fosters competition, it increases employment, it makes available to the people of Fairbanks, as well as those visitors to Fairbanks, an opportunity to purchase some very fine items and most of them made in the home."

Graduates Go To Market

Graduates of the first class ranged in age from 55 to 81. "Our average age was 63.5 years," Dexter notes.

The first 38 graduates received diplomas in mid-May. The following week, their products and services went on the market in the Eldernet showroom and store, a University of Alaska Fairbanks Downtown Center classroom converted to house displays. The store remained open through mid-August. (Most entrepreneurs planned to continue marketing their wares from their homes, although a group of them has begun discussing formation of a non-profit cooperative that would open a store of its own this fall.)

The purpose of the student store was two-fold. Besides giving fledgling businesses a kick-start, helping run the store was the equivalent of continuing education for graduates interested in earning one to three more college credits.

"About half the students in the program signed up" for the internship course, volunteering their time in return for credits, Dexter says. Many also opted to participate in more in-depth sales training workshops during the summer.

Spreading the Word

Graduates' work also is featured in a full-color Eldernet sales brochure that describes products, owners and mail order details. Students pooled their photography, typesetting, editing, graphics and paste-up skills, then solicited bids from interested printers. Financed by the Private Industry Council, the first 5,000 copies of the 24-page, 4-inch by 9-inch full-color brochure were distributed statewide and to interested Outside groups and individuals by offices, including the Fairbanks Convention and Visitors Bureau, visitors centers in Tok and Nenana and at Alaskaland.

Julia Quist, older worker programs' coordinator for the Private Industry Council, says for many students the appeal of owning their own businesses included the freedom to set their own work schedules, often to coincide with limiting factors such as transportation and other activities. They also liked the idea of being their own boss.

"They're just hoping to make a little bit more money than they would working for someone else," she explains. Most are retired and qualify for Social Security and Medicaid. "So working for somebody with a good benefit package was not a need, not to the majority of them," she says. "Most small businesses in town do not have good benefits anyway, so they would not be sacrificing that by starting their own business."

Range of Products and Services

When the Eldernet store opened this summer, one of the most endearing displays belonged to Louise Ridinger, who produced porcelain dolls dressed in real fur and leather, as well as more elegant French dolls, some perched atop music boxes that play strains by Beethoven.

Alfred Skondovitch, who at 65 has been painting for easily a half-century, is marketing his oils. Originally from London, his work has been displayed there, in New York, throughout the states and within Alaska. Now, the retired businessman, 35-year Alaskan and pioneer of American abstract expressionism is putting some of his works up for sale. "I was intrigued with the idea of a commercial mechanism for my work, but to keep it under control was always a problem," he says.

With a game plan devised with the help of Eldernet, he now plans to have limited-edition prints made of certain works, which would be for sale through his business along with originals.

Alex Sawyer runs Carpentry-Plus, a one-man operation for hire. Ladd McBride offers photographic service. There are fishing lures, cookbooks, sugar sculptures, personalized children's books and even mushing pups for sale.

Based on response to Eldernet to date, it is an idea that's working. Other job training, continuing education and senior services agencies have already taken an interest in duplicating the course curriculum, Dexter says, and have begun exploring options for financial backing.

While the first group of graduates sets out on their own, a new class of Eldernet entrepreneurs will begin a second nine-week course this fall, he says.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Alaska Business Publishing Company, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Fairbanks, Alaska
Author:Martin, Ingrid
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:Oct 1, 1992
Words:1409
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