Local entrepreneurs got to share their success stories with a statewide audience during a webinar week before last.

This was made possible because the M Partner Initiative, in conjunction with the McLean Institute for Public Service and Community Engagement and Insight Park at the University of Mississippi, as well as the Mississippi Development Authority will be in New Albany hosted the M Partner-Business Forum Webinar Oct. 17. 

The webinar was held at the Union County Heritage Museum and will highlight several local business owners, including Dan and Elizabeth Skinner, Tom and DeAnn Massengill, and Calrenease Cook, allowing them to share their stories about starting and owning businesses in New Albany and the services they provide. 

The webinar was broadcast throughout the state of Mississippi and was to have a live audience of around 50 people made up of University of Mississippi staff, faculty, and students along with community members and leaders. 

Billye Jean Stroud, director of both New Albany Community Development and Main Street Association said, “We are thrilled to be working with the university, its staff and students through the M Partner Initiative. The exchange of ideas and projects that have come from discussions will assist New Albany to enhance its assets and create opportunities that will benefit all of the members of our community.”

M Partner is a community engagement effort that was formed with the City of New Albany in the spring of this year. The partnership seeks to improve quality of life in Mississippi communities. This initiative offers a framework through which community and university representatives can cultivate mutually beneficial partnerships that will lead to the co-creation of knowledge and ideas to enhance community wellbeing. M Partner is one of the pillars outlined in the university’s comprehensive strategic plan, Flagship Forward, and underpins institutional efforts to promote healthy and vibrant communities. 

City officials have expressed an interest in partnering with the university to create branding and marketing materials to drive tourism and community involvement along with elevating educational initiatives such as grade-level reading.  Community organizations and leaders in New Albany have identified several beautification projects, as well as grant writing opportunities, that can engage University of Mississippi faculty, staff, and students alongside community residents.

“We are grateful to New Albany city officials and community leaders for begin a part of the pilot phase of M Partner,” stated Laura Martin, M Partner Director and Associate Director of the McLean Institute for Public Service and Community Engagement. “This initiative offers an opportunity to create sustainable and substantial results in our partner communities while enhancing experiential learning for our students and driving university research and community engagement.”

Martin welcomed everyone to the session on behalf of the McLean Institute. 

Nash Nunnery of Mississippi Development Authority for business start-up, expansion, planning and training moderated the session.

Tom and DeeAnn Massengill began, talking about their new business, Brain Freeze Yogurt, or “The Freeze.”

He praised the city leadership saying what had happened in the last decade was “nothing short of amazing.” “New Albany needed to make a change and although it was not politically expedient they stood up and made changes,” he said.

Massengill had been operating ASI, a telephone and security business, since 1995 and wanted to move to the downtown area in 1996.

“From 1999 to 2018 you could find some buildings on both sides of the road,” he said. But then businessmen such as Tommy Sappington and Billy Wiseman began buying and fixing up buildings, and seeing how to get them on the national register of historic buildings.

Before then, Massengill said he had not spent a lot of time downtown because the nature of his service was to go to the customer. “I did not understand the dynamics of downtown,” he said.

Once he saw what was going on, he wanted to be downtown more and heard that the SweetFrog frozen yogurt shop on the Tanglefoot Trail might be for sale. “I had never even had frozen yogurt,” he said, only then finding out “I had been depriving myself all these years.”

He talked with the owner about the sale but heard nothing for awhile. Finally, he got the call and made the deal, opting to not stay with the franchise because he felt it would be too restrictive.

They made their first batch of yogurt the night before a planned soft opening but word spread and they were swamped. “The first week we sold more than 2,000 cups of frozen yogurt,” he said.

He had wanted to be on the trail but also thought a viable downtown would be necessary for his success. “We understand that this is a luxury,” he said. “People don’t have to buy it so we want it to be a nice experience.”

It’s too soon to tell whether his business will be seasonal, he said, but his success so far is due to a superior product, a good store experience and a good location in a viable downtown area.

Dan and Elizabeth Skinner were next, talking about High Point Roasters, which is now the oldest coffee roasterie in Mississippi and sells its specialty coffees to more than 60 shops and individual customers throughout the United States and several foreign countries.

“I’d like to tell you that this is something I dreamed of all my life but actually I never drank coffee until I was about 30,” he said.

Skinner is an engineer by training and first worked at the Irwin B. Schwabe shirt factory, Denton Mills and then Piper Impact – all of which in turn essentially went out of business.

“I’m not much of a risk-taker so this was a blessing from the Lord,” he said.

Skinner found himself unemployed and “moped around. I was in pretty bad shape.”

Then, out of the blue, a friend told him that if he would roast coffee the friend would buy some.

Skinner worked on financing, which went well partly on the uniqueness of the plan. He then attended a national convention in Atlanta to learn more, purchased a German roaster and met up with a man who offers a limited-size roasterie school in San Francisco.

“It was really, really neat,” he said. “I learned a lot.”

In fact he did well enough that in the final espresso competition he beat out Starbucks – twice. They couldn’t believe he won the taste test the first time and insisted on a do-over, which Skinner won again.

Now, Skinner’s business has five employees, a huge, diverse market, and roasts about 1,500 pounds of coffee a month in a variety of custom blends from all around the world.

“I sell bags all over the U. S. and in five foreign countries, “ he said. “And I import from 16 countries.” He also sells accessories such as cups, lids, syrups, some teas but not food products.

He has relied mostly on word-of-mouth advertising but more recently has put up a good web site and benefitted from a high ranking on Google and social media. People actually visit the roasterie from all over the country, even though it is not really set up as a retail shop.

He said he has not really retired any blends but some proprietary blends are only available to designated customers.

Before closing, Skinner provided a wealth of coffee history and trivia.

Finishing out the webinar, Calrenease Cook talked about her Cook’s Adult Daycare Center.

She said she got her start in 2006 doing nurse staffing for area nursing homes. In 2011 she expanded to home care and got Medicaid certification but at first had only a couple of clients.

Word spread and she said, “Today we have over 500 clients in North Mississippi.” She said they provide respite care, which means gives relief to regular caregivers and Medicaid pays for that.

It was in 2017 that she wanted to establish an adult daycare center for the elderly and disabled.

At first she didn’t have the money, or the land. “But God wouldn’t stop the dream,” she said.

She began writing down her vision and community activist Jennifer Jones suggested she talk with Denotee Martin.

Martin, a former contractor, told her he was retired but she asked him to pray about it and a couple of days later he came on board.

More help came from the Minority PUL Alliance in Tupelo.

With God’s help, she said, she was able to open and the facility now provides transportation, breakfast, lunch, snacks, games and takes field trips such as to the Tupelo Buffalo Park or Memphis Zoo. 

“We get them out, to socialize, get them to doctors’ appointments, see that they get their medicine,” she said.

Today, she has 175 employees and the daycare facility includes an event center that can be rented “for a small donation that we use to help pay for trips,” she said.

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