LAKE COUNTY -- Five local entrepreneurs pitched their business ideas to a panel of judges and an audience of over 50 people at the second annual Pitch North competition June 24.

Contestants were competing for the chance to win a share of more than $9,000 in cash prizes to bring their ideas to life.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the event was held via ZOOM.

Pitch North was formed to spark entrepreneurial change and to encourage more small businesses to start in Newaygo, Oceana, and Lake counties. Pitch North received 28 business idea submissions, from which five finalists were selected by a local committee to pitch at the live event. Each finalist had five minutes to present, and judges had an opportunity to ask questions directly following.

"Entrepreneurs don't stop working hard, even amid a global pandemic. Each finalist stepped out of their comfort zone to participate in this competition," said Julie Burrell, Business Development Coordinator - Newaygo County, The Right Place, Inc. "They showed their passion for their businesses during their pitches, which earned each of them funding to move their business idea forward."

The first place prize of $4,000 was awarded to Amber Hellewell, of Hearth Magic, in Pentwater. Hearth Magic provides curriculum and educational plans for homeschooling.

According to Hellewell, the COVID-19 pandemic brought a surge of new clients interested in knowing a better way to teach their children at home, and charter schools have also shown an interest in her curriculum.

"Overnight, families were faced with having to home school children without the tools, support or education to do it confidently," Hellewell said. "Meeting these needs is what Hearth Magic does."

Hellewell plans to use her prize money to upgrade her computer, printer and other equipment to allow her to increase output and enhance her professional image.

"In order to serve families more efficiently, we will have office space with room for consultation and a classroom on site," she said. "The new computer will allow us to double the amount of curriculum we can produce, and decrease production costs.

"With the support of Pitch North, our business will have the resources needed to meet the growing needs of families," Hellewell added. "It feels so amazing to have people that believe in you. Thank you for putting this on."

A second place prize of $2,500 was awarded to Ron Radkay, owner of Elsie's Ice Cream Shop in Fremont.

Radkay said he and his wife frequented the ice cream shop as customers after moving to the area from Chicago, and when they saw it was for sale, they decided to buy it.

Radkay plans to use the prize money to help expand Elsie's, adding an old fashioned soda fountain.

This will allow for additional indoor seating and table service, expanding ice cream and food selections, and operating year-round, he said.

"We want this to become a place where kids, teens, families and seniors can spend time making memories," Radkay said. "There is no other soda fountain in the area, and this could bring visitors in to the area, which would help other businesses."

In addition, the expansion would possibly add an additional three employees to the current six, he said.

The third place prize of $1,500 went to Paul Avery, owner of Tiki Hut Farm Market, in Chase.

Avery said he has seen his business expand every year, and is running out of space for visitors to park.

"I can only fit three or four cars in my driveway at a time, and people trying to get in are lining up on US-10, causing traffic issues," Avery said. "With the extra money, I could put in a business driveway and parking that would accommodate more customers."

Avery said that ultimately he would like to establish an agri-tourism business with a petting zoo, cider and donuts, wine and beer tasting and a bakery.

"Agri-tourism has become very popular and there is not currently anything like that in Lake County," he said. "I think it would attract a lot of people, and would be good for the local economy."

Avery's prize money will allow him to continue growing his business.

Due to the pivot to a virtual format, all five finalists received cash prizes.

Ashley Titman, of Ashley Marie Farm and Bakery, received $800.

Titman said she will use the prize money to go toward a larger, commercial oven that will allow her to do more baking in less time, and greater serve the Newaygo County area.

Janet Lipzinski, of Up North Gift Company, received $500. Lipinski also said she will use the money to purchase upgraded, commercial style equipment to use in baking goodies to be sold in her gift shop.

Volunteering as judges for the event were: Marie Elliot, Business Consultant with the Small Business Development Center; Rich Houtteman, Community Affairs Manager for Consumers Energy; Melissa Marietti-Evans, Commercial Lender at Northern Initiatives, Thomas Hawley, Executive Director of College Relations at West Shore Community College and Scott Rumsey, Owner of Ed's Orchard Market.

The Right Place, Inc., is a regional nonprofit founded in 1985 and supported through investments from the private and public sector.

The Right Place drives current and long-term economic prosperity in West Michigan through the development and implementation of comprehensive strategies to retain, expand, and attract businesses.

This includes connecting area businesses to national and international resources, identifying emerging growth opportunities, strengthening the competitiveness of area firms, and marketing the region globally.

For more information, and to learn how to enter the small business competition, visit pitchnorth.com or contact Julie Burrell at burrellj@rightplace.org or (231) 335-1985.