Nancy Helms loved the vintage aesthetic of the former feed mill in downtown Chetek so much that she decided to fill it with a new business. The Mill is now a one-of-a-kind event venue with a modern-industrial vibe.
Nancy and her husband Leonard (Buddy) purchased the abandoned feed mill in May 2016 and opened for business in May 2017. Renovations included repairs to the roof and floor and removing scrap steel and more. “We found an old tank of molasses and removed 1000 gallons by hand, in 5-gallon pails.” Nancy, a self-described antiques fanatic, loved restoring the building to its original state, only better. “We are ADA-compliant—we worked very hard to accomplish that,” said Nancy, who mentors developmentally delayed adults. Her aesthetic is an elegant mix of old and new that sets it apart from competitors.
Finding business resources
Early on, Nancy and Buddy met with a building inspector who recommended meeting with the city clerk. That clerk suggested meeting with the Barron County Economic Development Corporation (EDC), which frequently collaborates with the small business development center at UW–Eau Claire. Suddenly Buddy and Nancy had a circle of advisors. Luke Kempen, Director of the SBDC at UW–Eau Claire, explained the relationship: “We SBDCs cover a large area so we rely on the local EDC directors in the counties we serve. They work on finding local resources, and we work on technical assistance with their clients.”
Dave Armstrong, Executive Director of the Barron County EDC, helped the couple write their business plan narrative and brought in Luke to help with financial projections. Buddy said, “Luke was wonderful to work with. Needing financial projections was a little intimidating, but he made the process smooth.”
Next came the search for financing, starting with money for renovating the century-old building. The Regional Business Fund made a small initial loan to help with the basic structural fixes. Then the new business owners met with other lenders referred by the SBDC and Barron County EDC. The Helms subsequently received financing through the SBA and Security Bank of New Auburn.
Surprised by “hoops to jump through”
In their first year Nancy and Buddy ran into unexpected issues with the City of Chetek. Increased congestion in the crowded downtown was a concern. “The toughest thing was the hoops you have to jump through,” Nancy said. “Board meetings, city council meetings—we thought they would see how we’ve contributed to the town.” The Helms have received the city’s permission to block the street to create additional parking during events, and have partnered with local hotels to run shuttles.
Luke said, “I was impressed with their tenacity and persistence. It took a lot of ingenuity to get over the hurdles placed before them.” Dave worked closely with the Helms throughout. “Buddy and Nancy both have a good head for business, and what they did inside The Mill is just gorgeous,” he said.
Accomplishments with the SBDC at UW-Eau Claire:
- Collaboration with Barron County Economic Development Corp.
- 5-year financial projections
Growing the local economy
The Mill now draws customers and guests from Minneapolis to Eau Claire, boosting the local economy. The business itself has doubled its sales year over year and new event-related services are cropping up, such as caterers, florists, and bakers, thanks to the business The Mill generates. “We didn’t want to handle the event planning,” Nancy said. “We are proud to promote the other businesses in the area.”
Marketing The Mill is Nancy’s responsibility. She is active on social media, including platforms targeting brides like The Knot. The business has received positive news coverage in wedding-industry publications and was recently selected to host the Governor’s Fishing Open. Hiring additional staff will soon be a priority.