PA Wilds Center announces development of new regional ecommerce infrastructure to support rural entrepreneurs
WARREN – This time next year, the nonprofit PA Wilds Center plans to pilot an online marketplace where consumers can buy authentic local products made in the PA Wilds region by a variety of nonprofits and small businesses.
Erie-based MakerPlace Inc. has been retained to develop the marketplace, PA Wilds Center CEO Ta Enos said Monday.
“Marketplace sites are more software development than website development, and we were thrilled to find the MakerPlace Inc. team right here in our backyard,” Enos says. “We are grateful to our partners at Ben Franklin Technology Partners, who helped connect us. MakerPlace has a proven track record, and the company’s values align with our nonprofit’s mission. We are excited to have them at our side as we work to build better market access for rural makers and entrepreneurs.”
An investment from the U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA) is helping to underwrite the buildout of the new regional e-commerce infrastructure.
The supply chain for the marketplace will be The Wilds Cooperative of PA, a free juried network of more than 350 local companies and organizations that the Center coordinates. The Center says it anticipates additional companies in the PA Wilds will join the network as the marketplace launches.
The PA Wilds online marketplace will allow qualified vendors in the Wilds Cooperative to feature their company on the marketplace, selling directly to consumers while drop shipping from their locations, but with the added marketing power of the regional PA Wilds brand.
“‘I Love NY’ makes $30 million a year for the public good,” Enos says. “‘Keep Austin Weird’ has helped turn a sleepy college town into one of the fastest-growing cities in America. We are not NYC or Austin, nor do we want to be. Our brand is rooted in our region’s tremendous public lands, outdoor experiences, maker culture, rural lifestyle and stewardship ethic. But we know there is huge economic power in developing our place-based brand and that this kind of commerce infrastructure is key to unlocking that power so more rural companies and communities can benefit from it.”
The PA Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED), a longtime investor in the PA Wilds strategy along with its sister agency, the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), applauded EDA’s investment and the Center’s direction.
“Rural counties in northcentral Pennsylvania have seen tremendous success through the Pennsylvania Wilds initiatives—establishing a diverse revenue strategy to create opportunities in the region,” said DCED Sec. Davin. “This funding will be critical as PA Wilds develops an e-marketplace through strategic partnerships, ensuring more access for rural entrepreneurs to share their products and be supported by the community and visitors to the area.”
According to the most recent statistics, visitors spend $1.8B annually in the PA Wilds. The region sees almost 15 times its population in day-trip visitors. The region’s public lands and outdoor recreation experiences are its main tourism draw. The PA Wilds is home to the greatest concentration of public lands in the Commonwealth, including 29 state parks, 8 state forests, 50 state game lands and PA’s only National Forest — all together, more public land than Yellowstone National Park.
“This brand and commerce infrastructure really is built on the back of our state’s public lands,” says Enos. “The conserved land in our region is a critical economic driver for our rural communities, and this is just another example of that.”
“Visitors want to ‘take home a piece of the PA Wilds,’” says PA Wilds Center chief of operations, Abbi Peters. “We see it every day at our brick-and-mortar PA Wilds Conservation Shop store at DCNR’s Kinzua Bridge State Park, which focuses on selling local products from rural companies and makers in the Wilds Cooperative. This new online marketplace will allow even more rural entrepreneurs to access these markets and keep a larger cut of each sale, while helping us meet visitor demand.”
MakerPlace Inc. has over eight years in consumer product ecommerce sales and marketplace experience, and, with investment support from Ben Franklin Technology Partners, has developed a proven technology that allows it to quickly bring local sellers online at minimal cost while taking ownership over the most complex back-office operations of a marketplace.
“We are passionate about the local seller,” says MakerPlace Founder and CEO Karen Rzepecki. “We’ve built a people-centered platform where makers are encouraged to tell their stories and consumers can support the local community. As a frequent visitor to the PA Wilds region, it’s an honor to be working with people entrusted with such an important mission. We are thrilled to be a part of the economic growth for this region!”
Ben Franklin Technology Partners provides direct funding, business assistance and networking to early-stage and established technology firms throughout PA. They have invested in several businesses in the Wilds Cooperative, and also in MakerPlace.
“Ben Franklin Technology Partners is very excited to partner with the PA Wilds Center on this marketplace initiative,” said Steve Brawley, President and CEO of Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Central and Northern PA. “We are thrilled that our Ben Franklin portfolio company MakerPlace could help realize this vision, and we are eager to support the opportunities it creates for entrepreneurs, makers and craftspeople across the PA Wilds region. This is a shining example of cooperation across economic development partners and the Commonwealth’s investments building on each other.”
The Center is looking at a revenue-share model for the marketplace that will allow vendors to keep the bulk of each sale, with a small percentage going to help cover tech support, maintenance and marketing of the site. “It is critical that we build sustainability into the marketplace from the start so businesses and consumers know it is something they can count on long-term,” Enos says.
Peters says partners involved in helping grow the region’s nature and heritage tourism industry started talking about a regionally-branded online marketplace concept more than a decade ago. “It takes time for a brand to stick and to build the appropriate network and resources to take on a complex project like this,” says Peters, who helped found the Center’s Wilds Cooperative and PA Wilds Conservation Shop programs.
The PA Council on the Arts (PCA) is a longtime supporter of the Center’s efforts to promote the PA Wilds region’s vibrant maker culture. PCA Executive Director Karl Blischke says, “With a dynamic digital platform and the support of key partners in the field of entrepreneurship and small business support, the PA Wilds Marketplace is an exciting offering for Pennsylvania. The marketplace will give Wilds-based creative entrepreneurs and artists the opportunity to directly showcase their work to a vast clientele and help them expand their business while highlighting the richness and agility of PA’s arts and culture sector.”
Since the COVID crisis began, the Center has interviewed dozens of businesses in its value chain about how they are doing, and many have brought up the marketplace concept.
“We didn’t decide to tackle this project because of COVID, but the pandemic has certainly reinforced, in a major way, the need for this regional commerce infrastructure,” Enos says. “We are very appreciative of EDA’s investment. Rural companies in our network want and need more opportunities to reach consumers online. And consumers want more ways to support authentic local businesses in the PA Wilds. We look forward to creating a marketplace where those two audiences can meet.”
The PA Wilds marketplace is expected to launch in late 2021.
About the Pennsylvania Wilds: The Pennsylvania Wilds is one of the state’s 11 official tourism regions, and also one of its eight designated Conservation Landscapes. It covers about a quarter of the Commonwealth and includes the counties of Cameron, Clarion, Clearfield, Clinton, Elk, Forest, Jefferson, Lycoming, McKean, Potter, Tioga, Warren and northern Centre.
The PA Wilds Center for Entrepreneurship, Inc. (PA Wilds Center) is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit whose mission is to integrate conservation and economic development in a way that strengthens and inspires communities in the Pennsylvania Wilds. For more information on the PA Wilds Center’s programs and services, please visit www.pawildscenter.org.
Media Contact: LaKeshia Knarr, PA Wilds Center Communications Director
[email protected] | 570-295-9014