DSU shuttering Strom Center: Grant funding struggles, foundation dissolution led to entrepreneurship center’s closure

Ray Ann Kilen said she cried as Dickinson State University President Tom Mitzel told her the university would be closing the school’s Strom Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation.

Still, the Strom Center director said she understood the “business decision” the university was forced to make.

“At the end of the day, you have to take care of the core business, which is the university,” Kilen said. “I commend him (Mitzel) and I don’t have any criticism of his decision based on the business decision that says we have to take care of the university first.”

The Strom Center, which opened in 2007 in DSU’s off-campus building in north Dickinson, will close April 11. It has four full-time employees, including Kilen, a part-time administrative worker and two student interns.

The Strom Center is financed through a mixture of state, federal and private grants, and is not accounted for in DSU’s operating budget — which was recently slashed $1 million because of state-mandated 4.05 percent across-the-board cuts.

“It’s a difficult economic time,” Mitzel said. “Grants aren’t easy to pursue. They haven’t been able to uphold that end of the business.”

Kilen said the Strom Center was also no longer receiving endowment funds that had been channeled to it through the old DSU Foundation, which is in financial receivership.

“Had we not lost our support through the foundation, we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” Kilen said in an interview.

Kilen and Mitzel said while grant money was slowly trickling in, it wasn’t coming fast enough to sustain the Strom Center’s operation.

“We knew that we were upside down financially,” Kilen said. “There’s no doubt about that.”

The Strom Center was started through donations by DSU alumni Jerome and Rosie Strom and local businesses. Its goal was to help revitalize the southwest North Dakota economy by encouraging entrepreneurs.

Kilen said she estimates that since it opened, the Strom Center has impacted about 1,500 businesses and helped 200 small businesses get started. She also estimates the center has helped small businesses access a combined $100 million in lending capital.

The Strom Center also houses the regional office of the Small Business Development Center, TechWest, as well as other state-based business programs.

Mitzel said DSU will work to transition services the Strom Center provides to departments on DSU’s campus.

“We’ll be reaching out to all the main entities and the services it has been providing to keep them going,” Mitzel said.

Kilen said she’s still committed to DSU and the Strom Center’s initial mission, and hopes to help assure its work isn’t undone because of its closure.

“My commitment has always been to the people we serve,” she said. “I love what I do and I feel very passionate about the industry I work in and the clients we’ve supported. My next step would be to talk to partners to understand where those new relationships can be built so the people we serve can continue having services.”