Small business optimism reached its third highest level since the Great Recession last month, in spite of harsh weather conditions that pummeled much of the country this winter. That resilience is promising for the economy, and underscores the importance consumers place in small shops as they continue to patronize these retailers and businesses.

At Kimco, small shops are an integral part of our more than 750 neighborhood and community shopping centers, adding diversity, value, and a local touch to our tenant mix. That’s why we created the Kimco Entrepreneurs Year Start (KEYS) program, to assist first-time business owners seeking to launch their first retail venture, service operation, or restaurant by providing one year of free rent in our shopping centers; affordable first-year property charges to minimize initial overhead; and access to retail business counselors.

nx level logoKEYS started as a pilot program at some of our California shopping centers back in May 2012. Today we are proud to announce a national expansion of that innovative incubator program so aspiring entrepreneurs have access to the program across the country. We’ve also been collaborating with NxLeveL Education Association, the nation’s largest entrepreneurial training network, and through a newly-forged alliance, will be able to expand those efforts even further to provide comprehensive 30-hour course programs for start-up entrepreneurs and prospective business owners. NxLeveL offers a practical, hands-on approach to preparing and executing a business plan, and has produced more than 300,000 graduates and 8,000 certified instructors.

The NxLeveL courses will be available through Women’s Business Centers, minority organizations, Small Business Development Centers (SBDCs), non-profit business organizations, community colleges, and various universities, in metropolitan areas throughout selected cities in the U.S. As part of this NxLeveL alliance, we’ve also established a Kimco Scholarship, which will reimburse applicants a portion of their tuition cost upon completion of the program.

Mom-and-pop stores are essential to a healthy and diversified retail market, and these efforts are part of our commitment to helping to encourage small businesses, as well as women, minority and veteran-owned businesses to open their doors and flourish.