December 15, 2010

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Nancy Spann recently moved to Kentucky from Oklahoma after her husband was transferred for work. She found a good spot in the quaint downtown area of Flemingsburg and decided to open an antique and collectibles shop. Then there’s Rick Weaver, a Fleming county native whose flower and gift shop has been open for many years and survived through more than one economic downturn.

These business owners and others have been participating in an interactive class project for graduate students in the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture’s School of Human Environmental Sciences .

“We developed the graduate-level course in rural retail development with a National Research Initiative grant (through the U.S. Department of Agriculture),” said Vanessa Jackson, UK merchandising, apparel and textiles professor. “We were interested in how rural businesses survive and how we could help them. So we are bringing the students out into the community to talk to retailers… learn about the businesses… and then make recommendations to help them improve and survive tough times.”

Spann said she was interested in hearing the students’ ideas.

“With this being a new business, I was open to it,” she said. “I want to hear the ideas the students have, since I haven’t really settled into one direction yet.”

Fleming County’s population is about 13,000, and Jackson said it was the ideal place for the pilot part of the class project.

“Flemingsburg is a small, resilient community,” she said. “Businesses here have survived during hard times, and anytime you can share ideas, you learn a lot.”

Donna Fryman is the UK Cooperative Extension agent for family and consumer sciences in Fleming County, and she was happy to help organize the project.

“We’ve been through a lot of hard times here,” she said. “We lost a factory about 15 years ago, and then everyone lost tobacco money, but through all of that, we’ve flourished.”

Weaver said he decided to participate because he has a lot of confidence in Fryman.

“Plus, we found out it could help UK students,” he said. “We’re anxious to get their feedback and see how we could improve our business and be more of a partner in the community.”

The students were assigned in teams to work with four retailers – Spann, Weaver, local hospital gift shop volunteer Marcia Foote and Jennifer Harrington, who owns a unique girl-centered gift shop across the street from Spann’s store.

“The girls and I have discussed we need some online accessibility and how we are going to go about that and maybe how we are going to expand our business,” Harrington said. “This is our first year in business, so we are setting out feelers to see how the first year goes—what’s selling, what’s not selling. After the first year we are going to reassess and see where to go from here.”

Chelsea Blackwell is one of the students who worked directly with Harrington.

“Really talking to real people who are operating real businesses and trying to make a profit is great,” said Blackwell, who hails from Sarasota, Fla. “The whole idea of the project is to create a manual for Cooperative Extension agents (to help) small rural retailers better their businesses, by thinking about their strengths and weaknesses and their strategies and how they can adapt to the changes in their communities.”

Blackwell said she’s seen a lot of things up close and personal that were only concepts in text books before the project began. Jackson said that was a major goal of the class—to involve students in real-world learning.

“It’s a different kind of learning,” she said. “Going into the communities is a major asset; you can study all you want, but until you get out in the field, you don’t get the full picture.”

Jackson’s class wrapped up this fall, but she is planning to offer it again.