Regional manufacturers, eateries, wineries and farmers are starting and succeeding, thanks to a handful of dedicated professionals quietly working behind the scenes.

Now, the U.S. Small Business Administration is spilling the beans on one of the area’s best kept business secrets: PennWest Clarion Small Business Development Center, which was recently named Western Pennsylvania Center of the Year for 2024.

SBA district director Dr. Kelly Hunt will honor PennWest Clarion SBDC director Cindy Nellis and her six-member team during a special May 3 ceremony marking the 61st annual celebration of National Small Business Week. The ceremony is open to the public, and a light lunch will follow. RSVP at 814-393-2060 or

“I have a great team,” Nellis said. “We work hard to provide the best consulting services, while enhancing the statewide SBDC network.”

Nellis came to the SBDC from the banking industry.

“Of course, we spend a lot of time helping small business owners secure funding, but many times they are facing challenges beyond money,” she said. “My team does an incredible job helping them with our expertise and vital tools and resources. We educate business owners on other topics such as marketing, accounting and human resource fundamentals.”

SBDCs are SBA- and state-funded entities helping entrepreneurs with no-cost counseling and low-cost training classes for every phase of small business development. Last year, 868 entrepreneurs in the 10-county area around Clarion received assistance from the SBDC. The SBDC’s efforts resulted in 87 new business starts, while infusing more than $18 million into the local economy.

Client Jim Marron received assistance from Nellis when he purchased the Allegheny Grille in 2014.

“Cindy was like an angel throughout the whole process,” he said. “She helped us create a five-year business plan and two-year budget, which we presented to our local bank to enable the sale. She is our go-to person.”

Hunt said she couldn’t be prouder of Nellis and her team.

“When we visit our favorite local gems, we don’t realize the incredible work that goes into turning small business dreams into reality. It’s not only the owners, but the free, ongoing support provided by our partners like the PennWest Clarion SBDC, which are creating successes everywhere.”

Like Marron, hundreds of entrepreneurs across the commonwealth rely on the PennWest Clarion SBDC. The center shares its expertise through monthly Saturday morning and Thursday evening online First Step webinars – designed for those looking to start a business.

“This way, people don’t have to step away from their day job,” Nellis said.

Those startup connections, coupled with growing and fostering relationships within their 7,000-square-mile territory, are spurring regional small business growth.

In addition to general business consulting, PennWest Clarion SBDC continues to be an integral member of the PA SBDC Agriculture Center of Excellence to provide dedicated consulting services to agriculture producers and processors in the commonwealth. Both training and consultation are especially impactful, as agriculture and its related sectors are large economic drivers in Pennsylvania.

“We have great partners, from legislatures to bankers and county and local economic development organizations,” Nellis said. “We are here to help you. We work to understand your needs and challenges, and find solutions.”

While Nellis said the award is an honor, watching their small startups thrive is the team’s greatest reward.

“When we see our entrepreneurs growing and hiring, it’s the most exciting time for us.”


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