Investing in Creativity: Meet the Creative Entrepreneurs Who are Shaping Wheeling’s Future

When thinking about what makes Wheeling special, I’ve noticed three common themes come up in conversations with friends, colleagues, and acquaintances. It often boils down to our rich history, unique small businesses, and growing arts scene. What I find even more special is that these three things can often be experienced all at the same time.

Don’t believe me?

If you’ve ever taken a stroll through our historic Centre Market to pick up a Coleman’s fish sandwich, then congratulations, you supported a local business located in a historic building and likely glanced at some of the artwork that is proudly displayed throughout the upper market house. While you were there, you likely made small talk with a friendly shop owner and left having had a more meaningful experience than you would leaving a mall or some big box store. This is just one of many examples of the ways that our city can thrive when our built environment is preserved, and entrepreneurship is supported.

These places and experiences aren’t built overnight or by accident. Having a thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem depends on aspiring entrepreneurs having access to the tools and information they need to succeed.

For the last several years, programs like Show of Hands and CO.STARTERS have provided training and capital that have helped countless business owners get started. In 2023, a new program was introduced to Wheeling with a specific goal – to support creativity-driven economic development. The Alliance for Creative Rural Economies (ACRE) from Bridgeway Capital invited Wheeling’s creatives to help support equitable economic development by helping grow their businesses. 

The yearlong ACRE program was designed to support creative entrepreneurs in growing their businesses that “enliven cultural landscapes, strengthen local economies, create quality jobs, activate commercial spaces, and more.” This translates to creatives receiving in-depth business coaching, attending workshops led by industry experts, and accessing meaningful market opportunities to gain visibility for themselves and their businesses. Participants exit the program with the resources to access capital through grants and loans, hire new employees, and reach their business goals. Bridgeway Capital identified Wheeling as a potential host city for ACRE because so many of the building blocks of success for creative entrepreneurs were already in place. 

Adam Kenney, Chief Program Officer at Bridgeway Capital, explains, “Through ACRE, we want to help these creatives realize greater sustainability as small businesses. When they are stronger, they do more for the communities they live in. They have the confidence to go out and lease a space, buy a building, hire their first employee, or create a workforce development program. That all comes from confidence, and that’s what this program fosters.”

Adam Kenney, Chief Program Officer at Bridgeway Capital, speaking to the crowd at the ACRE Wheeling graduation ceremony.

After spending over a year working on their businesses through this program, nine individuals proudly celebrated the completion of this ACRE journey in April 2024.  At an ACRE graduation ceremony held last month, Bridgeway Capital and its community partners – Wheeling Heritage and the Community Foundation for the Ohio Valley – came together to celebrate the inaugural ACRE Wheeling cohort. At the ceremony, ACRE graduates had an opportunity to share their experience and their goals now that the program has concluded. It comes as no surprise that many of the creatives noted how growing their own confidence has already had a positive impact on their growth as entrepreneurs.

In celebration of Wheeling’s first ACRE cohort, I invite you to take some time to learn more about each of these individuals, what they have accomplished, and where they plan to be in the future. These folks are some of the greatest examples of how our communities, like ours, can grow stronger by investing in its people. 

Natalie Kovacs, Shapelessflame

Natalie is an illustrator and cartoon artist whose work is inspired by both the natural and the supernatural. You’ve likely come across her pastel critters and cryptids online or at local vendor events. Until 2022, Natalie was working a full-time job through the week while traveling the tri-state area to attend vendor markets on the weekends. For quite some time, Natalie says that she accepted nearly every opportunity that came her way. “I have a very specific style, so I was signing up for any event that would take me. At the time, it was worth it because it helped me build capital for my business and figure out other behind-the-scenes things like online selling and wholesaling.”

  • Natalie Kovacs in her home studio (photo by of Wheeling Heritage Media).

While Natalie was gaining exposure and experience, the nonstop grind quickly led to burnout. She joined ACRE, thinking that she was going to learn how to do her business “the right way.” She expected to be pushed to open a brick-and-mortar store and hire employees, but that ended up not being the case at all. She shared that “going through this program with the rest of the cohort made me realize that everyone has different goals, and that’s totally okay. I also learned that the program wasn’t designed to fix me, it was designed to understand the things that were working for my business and how to make them better. There is no one-size-fits-all, especially in the arts. So I realized that I wasn’t doing anything wrong and that I had actually been building a strong foundation all along.”

Natalie shared that through the ACRE program, working with business coach Azriel Weaver helped her create a clean and effective website and portfolio, which has been instrumental in both building her confidence as an artist and providing a platform to share her work with customers and clients. As she moves forward in pursuing work as a full-time artist, Natalie’s business model will focus on maintaining and growing online sales, wholesaling to retail stores, and participating in more niche vendor markets. The stability in this area of her business will allow her to focus on bigger, longer-term goals that include pitching a script and artwork for an original graphic novel. You can follow Natalie and learn more about her work by visiting her newly designed website, shapelessflame.com.

Becky Cochran, Becky’s Custom Sewing & Alterations

Becky Cochran is a seamstress who started her business in 2018 out of a “she-shed” beside her house. Like many businesses just starting out, Becky said “yes” to a lot of work before realizing that she was taking on too much. She explains, “I have since learned that I can make a better profit and feel better about the work I’m doing when I narrow my focus to the types of alterations that I’m best at.” The ACRE program also allowed her to connect and network with business owners in the same industry as her. While competition can be looked at as a threat, Becky shared that she and her cohort instead focused on how they can work together to build each other up.

  • Becky Cochran operates her business out of a "she-shed" in her yard. (photo by Wheeling Heritage Media).

With a shed full of dresses and a steady stream of customers on the waiting list, Becky says that her next step is finding a bigger space for her to work. As a community development financial institution (CDFI), the team at Bridgeway Capital has been working with Becky to prepare her for the next steps in growing her business, which could include securing funding to open a new storefront. You can learn more about Becky’s business by visiting beckysews.com.

Tina Rush, North Fork Jewelry

Tina had been in business for just over a year and a half when she joined the ACRE program. At the time, she was selling her handcrafted jewelry at vendor markets and through social media. While successful, Tina said that she lacked confidence in running her business. She said, “Through the ACRE program, I learned a lot of business lingo, learned about accounting and marketing, but truly, the most important thing I learned was to have confidence in what I am doing. I’m generally a pretty confident person, but when you are putting your heart and soul into something, you can get sensitive about it.”

  • Tina Rush in her home studio (photo by Wheeling Heritage Media).

While building confidence might seem like an intangible benefit, it translates into a real change for business owners. Tina shared a story about being approached by a pageant organizer who asked for a product donation for the event. A less confident version of Tina would have quickly said “yes” without advocating for a deal that was beneficial for her business. However, thanks to the confidence built throughout her time in the ACRE program, Tina successfully negotiated a deal that was a true partnership from which she and the pageant organizers could benefit. “I received an email from the organizer saying how much she appreciated my honesty. From there, we’ve created a very good relationship that has a lot of potential going forward.”

Tina’s motto moving forward is “grow baby, grow!” She plans to pursue more wholesale opportunities, focus on selling at bigger vendor shows, gain a national presence online, and, one day, hire employees. “I have pledged that as I grow my business, I want to do so with the women of rural Appalachia. I want to train and encourage them while paying them good wages as we grow the business and our community together.” You can learn more about Tina and her business by visiting her website, northforkjewelrydesign.com

Mindi Yarbrough, Wild Heart Arts

When it comes to fine art, Mindi has done it all. From murals and gallery shows to live painting, and beyond, her work is prevalent throughout the Ohio Valley. She shared that her mission is “to make and share art that impacts the community. ACRE has allowed me to really explore all of the opportunities and avenues to do that.”

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Mindi noted that the relationships she’s made through this program have been invaluable to growing her confidence and making connections that have bolstered her work as an artist. “I’ve been able to get a behind-the-scenes look at all of the people in our cohort and learn from them. We all have different businesses, and learning through ACRE has helped me find a path that’s right for me and gain valuable insight and knowledge to help me move forward.”

  • Mindi Yarbrough in her garage studio (photo by Wheeling Heritage Media).

Mindi is leaving the ACRE program with a focus on fine art, building a professional portfolio website, and sharing her work outside the area. Through ACRE, she reached her 48th career art show, and she hopes to surpass 50 art shows in the next year. You can learn more about Mindi and her work by visiting her website, wildheartmindi.bigcartel.com.

Emily Rouse, Edgington Studio

Emily Rouse’s business, Edgington Studio, is a full-service cut-and-sew apparel manufacturer based in Wheeling. Edgington Studio helps emerging fashion designers with collection development and small production runs, makes custom one-of-a-kind garments, and teaches sewing classes. When Emily applied to the ACRE program, she shared that “I was rapidly expanding my business on a ‘say yes now and figure it out later’ mindset. It was costing income and work-life balance.” 

  • Emily Rouse in her studio located at 105 Edgington Lane (photo by Wheeling Heritage Media).

Through the ACRE program, Emily worked with a business coach who helped stabilize and build on the foundation of her business. She said, “After our very first workshop, I noticed I was adding goals into my Google Calendar as if they were tasks I could handle on a Tuesday afternoon, rather than breaking them down into steps. I’ve been able to get to the root of these issues and stabilize my foundation by breaking down all of the steps into telescopic and microscopic goals, most notably in finances and human resources.”

Emily noted that despite rising costs for running her business and her own added expenses for growth, she increased revenues in 2023 and is looking forward to further improvement throughout this year. Using the tools and systems developed through her ACRE journey, Emily is confidently moving forward to develop her team and create new partnerships with schools and organizations across the country. Learn more about Emily and Edgington Studio by visiting her website, edgingtonstudio.com.

Jes Reger-Davis, The Painter’s Nest

Jes is a watercolor artist and teaching artist whose work is inspired by the natural world. She had been working as a full-time artist since 2018 before joining the ACRE program. Despite working independently for so long, she found herself stuck on where to start with some of her larger career goals. She said, “The best way I can put it is that I didn’t know if I was doing enough, working enough, was I doing enough shows? I just didn’t really know where to start, and especially struggled with varying my streams of income.”

Working with a business coach through the ACRE program provided Jes with the space to explore all of the options and ideas that she had stirred in her head. Those conversations allowed her to realize that some of those ideas really weren’t possible or what she truly wanted to pursue, and they opened the door to exploring opportunities that were better suited for her. This has meant doing fewer weekend artist markets and focusing on the ones that bring her the most joy and are more aligned with her brand. 

  • Jes Reger-Davis in her home studio (photo by Wheeling Heritage Media).

Speaking of branding, through the ACRE program, Jes rebranded her business to tell her story better. With the help of a fellow cohort member, Mindi Yarbrough, they created a new logo that Jes now uses to market her products and services. Jes said, “I feel so fortunate to be surrounded by other creative people who can do things like this. I’ve always known this, but especially being a part of this program, made me appreciate the network of artists we have in this area.”

Moving forward, Jes plans to travel throughout the state to teach more watercolor workshops, continue selling her work at brick-and-mortar shops, expand her wholesale operations, and take on more passion projects – which include writing and illustrating her first book! “I just want to keep doing what I’m doing, but I’m learning to do that in a way that serves me and makes me happy.” You can learn more about Jes and see her work at thepaintersnest.bigcartel.com.

Adam and Beth Bedway, East Wheeling Clayworks

“In the beginning, we were trying to get above water,” explains Beth Bedway, co-owner of East Wheeling Clayworks. She and her husband, Adam, started their ceramic studio as a team of two in 2016, working out of a small garage in – you guessed it – East Wheeling. Today, they have expanded to a team of eight with their own storefront and production studio in North Wheeling. While much of this was done through their own hard work and a lot of trial-and-error, their time spent in Bridgeway Captial’s ACRE and NextLeap programs dramatically changed the way the Bedways did business to improve their efficiency and productivity as a business.

  • Adam and Beth Bedway in their shop located at 747 Market Street in Wheeling (photo by Wheeling Heritage Media).

“The business we are currently running is a completely different business from when we started,” Beth explained. “Our team has put systems in place that allow us to streamline our production methods and avoid loss time and mistakes. Our production lead times have dramatically dropped, and we are now selling wholesale directly to eight of our biggest clients.”

In addition to growing the wholesale side of their business, they have also expanded their reach in the Pittsburgh market. East Wheeling Clayworks has opened two successful pop-up shops, with plans to open a second brick-and-mortar shop in Pittsburgh. “It’s really exciting and terrifying at the same time,” said Beth. “We are looking forward to using all of the information we learned through the program to continue pushing our business to the next level.” Keep up with everything the East Wheeling Clayworks team is up to by visiting their website, eastwheelingclayworks.com.

Amanda Carney, Cat’s Paw Art Studio

Amanda became the owner of her uncle’s custom framing business in 2014 when he decided it was time to retire. She was fresh out of college and was up for the challenge of transforming Cat’s Paw Art Studio into a business that could sustain itself for another generation. After moving the business to two different locations and keeping it running through the pandemic, Amanda came to ACRE with a desire to dig in and figure out how to not just keep things afloat but to grow the business to allow her to make a living by making custom frames and selling her art. 

  • Amanda Carney, owner of Cat's Paw Art Studio, located at 600 Main Street, Wheeling. (photo by Wheeling Heritage Media)

“When I started the ACRE program, I realized that I still considered Cat’s Paw to be my uncle’s business, and I was very hesitant to change too much,” explained Amanda. “I didn’t want to let my uncle down or the customers who he had built with his own goodwill. But I came to realize that if I want the business to be profitable for me, that I have to put more of who I am into the business.” 

Amanda shared that in addition to custom framing, she has started taking on more artistic endeavors in the shop, rather than on the side as she had previously done. “[Cat’s Paw] has definitely become more of a marriage between who I am artistically and what I can do for customers. I’ve been taking on more classes, doing some consulting work, and really taking on any new opportunity that I can handle.” While Amanda admits that she will eventually need to narrow her focus, she is excited and enjoying this phase of trying new things and seeing what sticks. She said, “I don’t know where I’m going just yet, but I am going, and I think that’s a positive.” To follow Amanda’s journey, you can check out her online portfolio, ohmandaz.carbonmade.com, and visit Cat’s Paw Art Studio on Facebook.

The impact of programs like ACRE is clear—having more creative entrepreneurs find success in our city means more commercial and cultural activity downtown and in our urban neighborhoods. These folks are the people who are filling vacant storefronts with products and services that tell a story about who we are, where we come from, and where we’re going. As community members invested in the revitalization of our community, it’s our job to continue to support these businesses so they can continue to lease or buy those buildings, hire those new employees, and offer a uniquely Wheeling experience to their patrons.

Cheers to Wheeling’s first ACRE cohort!

Learn more about ACRE and the ACRE Wheeling cohort by visiting acrepartners.org/wheeling. ACRE Wheeling was made possible with support from The Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation and the Community Foundation for the Ohio Valley.

• Alex Panas is the Program Manager for Wheeling Heritage, where she works with artists, small business owners, and community stakeholders to provide technical assistance and create meaningful programs that enhance Wheeling. She also serves as the managing editor for Weelunk. Alex lives in St. Clairsville with her husband where they raise four cats and four spunky backyard chickens.