Support local businesses and encourage community and economic development.
Local businesses have recently met Andrea Runge, CEO of Lincoln Economic Advancement Development as she’s made her way around town. Complete with tennis shoes, Runge has been hitting the pavement alerting business owners of the new Back To Business grant program.
The $250 million program is for Illinois businesses that have experienced losses as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and will provide grants of up to $150,000. Launched Aug. 18, applications are being accepted and grants awarded on a rolling basis through October 13, 2021.
As a Community Navigator for the program, Runge is available to answer questions and, if needed, help fill out the application, which can be accessed online.
“It takes about 30 minutes,” said Runge. “Nothing in it is strange, the questions are very straightforward.”
“The program is a hub and spoke model,” said Runge. “Peoria is our hub, and then there’s a network of people like me that can help.” While Runge is the navigator for business owners in Lincoln, Casey Peterson of Greater Peoria Economic Development Council covers the rest of Logan County.
Promoting the grant has been a way for Runge to meet more business owners since joining LEAD soon after its launch last spring. As a regional non-profit, LEAD was created to support local businesses and encourage community and economic development.
Five months into it, Runge is loving her role and has been impressed with what she has seen. “This is a community that is willing to go after things that are maybe not in the norm in order to take care of their people,” she said. “There are all kinds of entrepreneurial things happening here.”
Runge is not new to Lincoln, nor to community and economic development. While previously living in Springfield, she worked for the Illinois Association of Community Action Agencies and later, for Illinois Ventures for Community Action.
These positions brought her into contact with organizations in Lincoln, such as CAPCIL and ALMH hospital. “I’ve always loved Lincoln,” said Runge. And since joining LEAD she has been able to put into practice what she loves to do—bring business and community together for the good of the whole.
“This is what my thesis was about,” said Runge, “connecting economic investment and community well-being.” Her studies revealed that the higher the number of entrepreneurs, especially in certain industries, then the more connection there is between investment and well-being.
“The reason is because they internalize community values,” said Runge, “and they are more likely to make a decision that’s best for the business as well as the community. And when you see people around you making an impact and doing what they love, that is inspiring. There becomes an energy behind it that’s bigger than any one of us.”
She’s quick to point out that it’s not just entrepreneurs that hold these values, and has seen that local corporations are very community minded. “We need a healthy dose of both,” said Runge.
Through interactions with business and community members, Runge has been gathering a sense of what is needed for Lincoln to thrive. “I’m still diving in,” said Runge, “but my first impression was that we need to practice asset thinking, not deficit thinking.”
“We need to understand that we are awesome and that we make Lincoln awesome together. We can choose to either look at the things we wish we had or be appreciative for the things that we do have, which has a good impact on our collective energy. This sounds touchy feely, but it’s true.”
“By attracting new residents, new businesses, we’re creating this microcosm. If we don’t believe in ourselves, love ourselves as a community it’s going to be harder for someone else to recognize what makes us special.”
“When someone says we used to be so vibrant,” said Runge, “I follow that with, ‘and we will be again.’ It may not look like it did before. It probably won’t, and it probably shouldn’t. Because the world is different now. We need to change and grow with it.”
“We used to have gangsters, and tunnels where booze was getting shuttled underneath. And at one point we were a big manufacturing town. We changed with the times. So we embrace all those things and then figure out how it is we become the most vital Lincoln for this world today. We need to focus on our assets and connect them.”
Runge acknowledges that we need to cultivate change in an intentional way. “We don’t want to lose what makes Lincoln unique,” she said. “We need to work regionally so that we’re maximizing the potential for everyone, and be collaborative rather than competitive.”
She points out that there are positive movements taking place—grant monies coming in, new business interest, and new initiatives.
New connections are being made through events such as, “Ask Me Anything,” where Runge and others, such as bankers and insurance agents, are available for entrepreneurs to come and ask questions. There were a few in the summer and more to come this fall.
Runge is involved with the new Small Business Coalition, as well as the Logan County Professionals, which is now up and running—revitalizing what used to be the Young Professionals Network. “I’m working with them to figure out some different training opportunities,” said Runge.
“We all need belonging,” said Runge. “It is so integral to community. The more belonging that we have, the more accepting we become, and the greater the possibilities together can be. The more ‘othering’ we do, the more we are torn apart from each other. I feel like so much of what I do is just loving people. Loving them and walking with them through their business stuff or figuring out what they’re passionate about, helping them plug into a place that might help them be that.”
“I follow my heart and try to do the next best step,” said Runge. “I think about the greater good, about the collective, ask for help, think collaboratively, and then figure out the next step. I see nothing but positives here. It’s not smoke. I believe that.”