Feb 112013


By Wesley Brown

Saturday, February 9, 2013

City planners this week said they are temporarily suspending the study of a small business incubator in west Greenville due to a lack of funding and interest among potential entrepreneurs to support a facility that would nurture local startups into homegrown enterprises.

The announcement — made before the Greenville Redevelopment Commission — could result in the loss of about $2.5 million of quality office space and up to $80,000 of professional support services provided to potential business owners at a cost below market rate, said Niki Jones, the city planner in charge of the project.

Jones said the city owns nearly two blocks along the 800 block of West Fifth Street and has made contact with several developers to partner in building the site into an incubator, which would allow entrepreneurs to rent 100 square-feet of office space and have access to conference rooms and a trained professional to help them design a sustainable business model.

The main hurdle to the center moving forward is a lack of funding — the incubator currently has none — and a private executive or a nonprofit organization to raise the funds for the facility and “champion” its growth, Jones said.

“We are not sitting idle and staff by no means is saying we are giving up,” Jones said. “The only thing on hold right now is the feasibility study. We are still continuing the acquisition process and searching for someone to run the facility.”

Jones said the idea of an incubator is to provide professional office space that lends credibility to startups and younger small businesses that may be working from home and without a place to meet potential clients.

The incubator would be closely tied to Greenville’s Supporting Economic and Entrepreneurial Development program and as clients graduated, they would spend two to three years in the incubator nurturing their business model through the guidance of an upper-level administrator.

“The theory is that this would be a constant cycle — an entrepreneurial pipeline — that would allow the community to grow a critical mass of small businesses and at the end of the day, create new jobs and build the city’s tax base,” Jones said.

Right now, the main problem Jones said is that the incubator’s day-to-day operations are “ambiguous at best.” No legitimate party has stepped forward to manage the facility at a salary between $60,000 to $80,000 a year and there is a general lack of entrepreneurs to fill the center.

Jones said city planners have contacted East Carolina University’s and Pitt Community College’s small business centers to host weekly workshops and the U.S. Economic Development Administration and the Golden Leaf Foundation for funding, but has yet to gain commitments from either.

“The city funding and staffing the center would be too much of a burden on our budget,” Jones said. “We are not trying to do that. We are exploring the private sector and talking to nonprofit organizations to find someone to champion the facility, raise the money and market the center.”

Chris Mansfield, chairman of the Redevelopment Commission, said the board would continue to envision a number of “logical and practical” solutions to remedy the problem. Other members, though, were less optimistic that it could fill a niche in west Greenville and connect investors with startup businesses.

Redevelopment Commissioner Mark Woodson served on a steering committee for the incubator said what he saw missing was a “certain level of enthusiasm and support from the candidates who probably needed the facility the most.”

“If you really are having to go out and find entrepreneurs, maybe we do not need an incubator,” commissioner Judy Siguaw said in agreement with Woodson. “Maybe this space can be used for another purpose. I know we desperately need a grocery store in that area. It is a food desert.”

Jones said the incubator could accommodate retail and a grocer.

The observations have prompted some steering committee members to suggest that west Greenville may not be an ideal location for an incubator, due to crime, traffic, lighting and a lack of commercial activity.

“It is not that Greenville is not an entrepreneurial community,” Jones said. “It is just that I do not think we are nurturing it enough.”

At the heart of business development in the metropolitan area, is the Pitt County Technology Incubator, Greenville’s Supporting Economic and Entrepreneurial Development program and the Third Street Community Center, each of which is either growing or near full capacity.

“Maybe we are just not ready for an incubator right now or maybe we are looking for an incubator that is too large,” Jones speculated. “But eventually if we want to be an entrepreneurial community, we are going to need an incubator.”

Contact Wesley Brown at 252-329-9579 or wbrown@reflector.com. Follow him on Twitter @CityWatchdog.

via The Daily Reflector.


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