Rene Haag, Blaines Art: SBA Alaska Small Business Person of the Year
At first glance, Blaines Art store owner Rene Haag seems like your typical successful entrepreneur—hard working, dedicated, creative, and forever on top of sales, supplies and employees. It doesn’t take long, however, to realize Haag, of Anchorage, is anything but your standard-issue business profile.
From having the wherewithal to save the state’s only professional-grade art shop from closing and then persevering through spirit-busting obstacles to erect a new Blaines building in Spenard, to continually giving back to the art community, as well as local charities and worthy causes as far as Katmandu, it’s easy to see why Haag was the Small Business Administration’s clear choice as Alaska’s Small Business Person of the Year for 2012.
“She just stood out among this year’s nominees in all categories,” SBA’s Senior Northern Area Manager Scott Swingle said from Fairbanks in March. “What she’s done is pretty huge. She never gave up when the going got rough with the new property, and she even took on additional employees while cutting her own pay. By saving Blaines and expanding it, she’s improving so many other businesses, as well as the lives of those in the art community and beyond. It’s a win-win for everyone.”
Her Middle Name is ‘Service’
To those who know and love the photographer-turned-businesswoman, the prestigious award is a no-brainer and long overdue. No matter who you talk to about the Montana-raised farm girl, it’s difficult for them to maintain their composure in the process.
“Rene has such a big heart. She supports everybody,” fellow photographer and long-time friend Jay Jackson said recently as she fought back tears. “I think her middle name is ‘Service.’ She does so much for the art community and local charities, and she didn’t think twice about becoming involved in the nonprofit organization I founded called ‘Helping Hand for Nepal,’ which provides low-cost eye surgeries and other medical procedures for people who otherwise would remain blind or die from other medical issues. She’s just amazing.”
Not only did Haag rally 31 Alaska artists to each contribute a piece of art through her “A Painting a Day” program for Nepal at her new Spenard store in April, but she hopes to raise at least $5,000 through the local Rotary Club and one in Kathmandu, Nepal, to begin providing micro loans to Nepalese women who wish to start their own cottage industries there.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Haag’s many contributions to her fellow man. It’s just how she rolls.
“The reason I give so much, I guess, is because we’re put on this planet to do more than just live for ourselves,” Haag said in March after learning she had won the SBA award. “I believe in giving back and giving back to the community that supports this business. I was actually raised that way. My father was very charitable as a farmer in Montana, always hiring people who needed a job. He always gave a hand up to people and I like to, too. I can’t think of any other way to live.”
An Alaska Institution
Many in the art community know that if Haag hadn’t bought Blaines Art from the John Weeks family in 1998 after managing the store for 12 years, the business that had been on the corner of Northern Lights Boulevard and Spenard since 1953 most likely would have closed its doors forever.
That was something Haag just couldn’t fathom.
“I couldn’t see this town without an art store,” said Haag, who already had made a name for herself as a respected photographer with images of Anchorage’s homeless men and a traveling show of portraits she’d captured while driving 10,000 miles across rural Russia. “Alaska has such an incredible art community and there really wasn’t anywhere else they could get high-quality supplies here. Plus, I wanted to preserve and nurture a supportive atmosphere where artists could gather and share their love of their craft and of Alaska.”
With help from an SBA loan through Northrim Bank and the Weeks family, Haag purchased the business that had become an iconic landmark in midtown, complete with a colorful mural on the north side of the building that now has at least 17 layers of paint from various community projects throughout the years.
As much as Haag loved that building, however, increasing plumbing and electrical problems, as well as loss of easy access if Anchorage installed a median in front of it drove her to seek a better location in which to expand supplies and classes and provide a gathering place with a coffee bar.
“I had never dreamed of building a new building,” she said in her Blaines office, surrounded by beloved art she either purchased or received as gifts. “I thought I would just renovate another building nearby. But I couldn’t find another suitable place and then this property became available, and it seemed perfect because it was just around the corner from the original store. Little did I know I’d be facing a very tough, three-year battle to get this place up and running.”
As is typical of a woman who loves a good challenge and has been an overachiever since her young days as Prom Queen, actress and star athlete in Geraldine, Mont., Haag hung in there when many would have thrown in the towel.
As it turned out, the property sandwiched between Benson and Northern Lights just east of Spenard had served as a truck fueling station 40-some years ago and had quite a bit of contamination and buried fuel tanks to contend with. More than a thousand tons of contaminated soil had to be dug up and burned before Haag could get the okay to build on the property, she said.
Once that was resolved, Haag was faced with trying to convince the Municipality of Anchorage to allow the new 7,500-square-foot building to sit right up against the property line—without the additional six-foot easement required by the city. This was critical because water and sewer lines already were in place and the building’s footprint was pretty much already cemented in.
“By then, way too much money had been spent,” Haag said. “If we had to change everything at that point, the new building never would have happened. So I talked to a few friends, and they talked to a few friends, and the community came out in droves to support me in my fight for the variance. It was very heartfelt that they came to bat for me like that. I am so blessed.”
In fact, Haag’s dream for Blaines was shared by so many in Alaska, 46 artists, friends and business associates testified on her behalf to the municipal zoning board in October and November of 2009, the win was inevitable in the end.
One of those local artists, Don Kolstad, has been a Blaines Art Supply patron since 1982. In his testimony of Oct. 11, 2009, he pleaded with city officials to do the right thing.
A Gathering Place for Artists
Reached after teaching an art class in the new Blaines recently, Kolstad was thrilled not only for Haag’s success in finally getting the new building up and open in August of 2010, but for her continued commitment to the local art community and her recent honor.
“There’s no better person deserving of the award after all she’s been through to improve the business in the community,” Kolstad said. “If she hadn’t saved Blaines from closure more than a decade ago, it would have been an incredible loss for Alaska. I get everything there. With the addition of the coffee shop, it’s also becoming a warm place for artists to come and hang out and try different things.”
Haag estimates that 50 percent of the products she sells in her store cannot be found anywhere else in Alaska, and much of its professional-grade paints, brushes and canvases are essential to local artists like Kolstad, Karen Whitworth, Andy Sonneborn, Betty Atkinson, Kurt Jacobson and many others whose works decorate the store’s walls.
Haag’s endeavors over the last several years impressed Evergreen Business Capitol Vice President and Senior Loan Officer Barbara Gill so much, she went through the arduous process of nominating Haag for the SBA honor after helping her with the 504 SBA loan for the new building.
“Success, to Rene, is not only measured by the bottom line, it is about being a contributor to the success of others,” Gill wrote in her Small Business Person of the Year nomination letter last October. “It is about being part of the ‘before’ and ‘after’ and about always reaching for the next vision.”
To Haag’s husband, Dave, the award was a surprise only because he hadn’t realized she’d even been nominated for it.
“If you ask me, she deserved it a long time ago because she works that hard,” said Dave, a heavy equipment operator for Alaska Railroad Corp. who also dabbles in his own art. “Rene always instinctively does the right thing without even thinking about it. Everything she does comes from her heart. That’s why people are drawn to her, and it’s one of the reasons why I love her.”