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Organization connects entrepreneurs in WV's Eastern Panhandle

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By CHRISTINE MILLER FORD

For The State Journal

CHARLES TOWN — Now in its 12th year, the Eastern Panhandle Entrepreneurs Forum continues to stay true to its founding mission: By helping the Eastern Panhandle's entrepreneurs connect with one another, everyone's business grows.

Whitney Burch coordinates the program from her office at the Jefferson County Development Authority in Charles Town. Officials with the JCDA created the organization in 2001 along with colleagues at the development authorities in Berkeley and Morgan counties.

The first Thursday of every month, entrepreneurs and interested members of the public gather for a free evening session that includes networking, appetizers, soft drinks and a formal program. The gatherings rotate between venues in Jefferson, Berkeley and Morgan counties.

The February EPEF event begins at 5:30 p.m. Feb. 7 at The Inn at Charles Town, located at 100 Hollywood Drive in Charles Town. This month's program, which begins at 6:30 p.m., will feature Amy Bobchek, Comcast Spotlight's D.C.-area sales director, who will discuss making small advertising budgets deliver big results.

Past programs hosted by the EPEF have been devoted to topics such as Internet security, customer service, health care reform, partnerships with non-profits, exporting in West Virginia, insurance needs, conflict resolution, risk management, accounting "gray areas," financial resources available through the state, and tips from the state Attorney General's office on common scams facing business owners.

Another popular EPEF program staple: Local success stories, where a  business owner is invited to share insights, including tips for overcoming challenges.

The EPEF also has begun partnering with another business group, the Entrepreneurs' Café. Last month at a special gathering at the Purple Iris in Martinsburg, attendees paid $10 each to listen to five local business owners speak about what they do — then cast a vote for the business they saw as most promising.

Lillian Potter-Saum, who owns The Local Source in downtown Shepherdstown, garnered more than a third of the votes cast and took home more than $600 — money she says she'll use to upgrade her sales and inventory systems.

Burch deemed the competition a success and said it could become an annual event for the EPEF.

The chance to network with other business owners from across the Panhandle is a highlight of the EPEF's regular monthly get-togethers. During the opening networking hour, the first 10 EPEF members who pay a $5 fee can set up a display table highlighting the story of his or her business.

Many entrepreneurs spend the hour chatting with potential customers, hand out literature and samples — sometimes even make sales on the spot.

Burch sees the EPEF as an ideal way for even the smallest business to get out the word of what they offer. "Just passing out business cards can help a lot," she said.

Burch also sends out news releases before each month's meeting, alerting area newspapers, radio and TV stations and other media outlets to the month's program, along with information on the businesses that have signed up for display tables. Also highlighted in her releases: businesses that have provided financial support to become year-long EPEF sponsors.

Along with notices that Burch emails to members of the chambers of commerce in each Panhandle county and monthly "email blasts'' that go out to the EPEF's extensive database of entrepreneurs in the area, the news releases further generate attention for the local business owners.

 Want to Know More?

  • The Eastern Panhandle Entrepreneurs Forum meets monthly, typically the first Thursday of each month.
  • Meetings usually are held at the Inn at Charles Town, the Purple Iris in Martinsburg and the Country Inn in Berkeley Springs.
  • Networking begins at 5:30 p.m. with a program from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Admission is free. 

  • To learn more, go to www.jcda.net online, send an e-mail to info@jcda.net or call Whitney Burch at (304) 728-3255.