Shopping small for the holidays helps businesses, but coming back all year is what keeps them going.

Small businesses will be highlighted at events across the state and

nation this Saturday, but sustaining a vibrant downtown is a never-ending effort that requires a continued commitment.

“It is an ongoing process,” said Steve Twilley, executive director for Downtown Milford Inc. “It is not something that happens by one big event.”

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, businesses with 20 employees or less made up 89.6 percent of all business in 2012. In addition, the Small Business Administration Office of Advocacy says that, between 1993 and mid-2013, small businesses accounted for 14.3 million net new jobs, or 63 percent of net new jobs for that period.

That same office noted that, in Delaware, 74,913 small businesses employ 174,196 people, or 45.6 percent of the workforce.

One resource that has helped small businesses is the Delaware Economic Development Office’s Downtown Delaware program.

Diane Laird, state coordinator for Downtown Delaware, said the agency offers such things as the Rural Business Mentoring Program. The program connects business owners with mentors who can assist them with topics ranging from customer service and social media to cost saving measures and business plan strategies.

Downtown Delaware started out focused on Main Street towns. Since 1996, the seven Main Street towns in the program have seen a net gain of 362 business and 1,688 jobs. And from the success of the Main Street program, Downtown Delaware created a Commercial District Affiliate designation.

“We used to be focused on just designated towns,” Laird said. “We expanded to include affiliates, so there is really something for communities at all levels of the game.”

Twilley said Downtown Milford Inc., in a Downtown Delaware Main Street town, created an entrepreneurs’ network and a merchants group which come together to talk about challenges and successes. As part of Downtown Delaware, they can network with other business communities and share ideas and successes, like Milford’s Third Thursday initiative begun earlier this year. That involves merchants staying open later the third Thursday of each month.

“Research shows the vast majority of retail purchases are made after 6 p.m.,” Twilley said.

Next year, plans are to establish a monthly theme for each Thursday.

“Downtown has to be a destination, it has to be something special,” he said. “There’s something for people to see and places for people to shop where they will find things they won’t find elsewhere.”

Nick Manerchia, executive director for Middletown Main Street Inc., which is also in Downtown Delaware’s Main Street program, said the town benefitted from Downtown Delaware’s Project Pop Up. That pairs the owners of vacant properties with potential entrepreneurs. The fledgling business receives three months rent-free, but the ultimate objective is for its owner to sign a long-term lease.

Manerchia said Amber Shader, owner of First & Little baby boutique in Middletown, was in Project Pop Up.

“Her store is thriving. She has brought such a cohesiveness to all the boutiques,” he said.

Smyrna, Dover, Milford and other communities have also participated in Project Pop Up, and Laird said 18 businesses in the program have signed long-term leases, but she is most proud of the successes in Milton, where several stores opened in what had been vacant storefronts.

“Five years ago there was a lot needed there, and now it is redeveloped and things are really happening,” she said.

At the time, Gov. Jack Markell praised the program.

“The success of this program underscores the fact that there are entrepreneurs who want a shot at starting and growing businesses, and downtown communities have a home for them,” he said.

Other businesses, including The Happy Cow, also are thriving because of the success of the Pop Up businesses in Milton. Happy Cow owner Ted Falzarano grows his own micro-greens in the store in what looks like a greenhouse. The

business also offers salads, soups, subs and pastries.

Milton and Smyrna are Commercial District Affiliates. Affiliates, according to Downtown Delaware’s website, are “communities that choose to implement downtown revitalization strategies similar to designated Main Street programs, but on a smaller scale. Some of these towns are ‘testing the waters’ as they consider future Main Street designation. DEDO works with these communities to build strategies that will encourage partnership-development, new funding opportunities, and increased opportunities for small businesses.”

Among the benefits, affiliates can participate in Downtown Delaware’s group training activities led by state and national downtown development experts. And they can tap into that statewide network where Main Street participants share information, learn about best practices in revitalization and trade best practices with peers from around the state.

The next opportunity for towns and communities to learn about Downtown Delaware will be the Delaware League of Local Governments talk on Dec. 1. Laird said city and town staff typically attend. Anyone interested in attending can contact her at Diane.Laird@state.de.us or call Carl Luft at 668-0991.