Incubator of ideas

November 10, 2004

Bulletin Staff Writer

The West Piedmont Business Development Center is nurturing small businesses in uptown Martinsville.

Launched in April of 2002 in the former Tultex building on Church Street, West Piedmont is an incubator for start-up businesses. It provides office space, utilities, phone and Internet services, loans and other resources to help new businesses make a go of it.

"Small businesses are vital to our national and local economy," said West Piedmont Manager Lisa Fultz. Pointing to two of the 17 businesses now housed in the center, she added, "Instead of large employers, it's going to be people like Masha (Edelen) and Kerry (Fountain) who are going to turn our economy around."

If the center is a gauge for measuring future economic vitality, then prospects for business growth in the area are good. In the last year, the center has gown from 13 percent capacity to 87 percent, Fultz boasted.

In addition to HerDesign, a Web site development business owned and operated by Edelen, and All Trust N.H., a transportation and shipping brokerage owned and operated by Fountain, the West Piedmont center also houses businesses specializing in food supply, fabric warehousing and janitorial services, among others.

Fultz credits the growth in businesses being serviced by the center to a combination of advertising and word of mouth.

Acting on the advice of her husband, Edelen, 27, said she simply stopped by, talked with Fultz and found a professional environment so favorable that she hates the idea of one day leaving.

Edelen had been working out of her Martinsville home but, with two children, she found that it was tough separating work from family and personal responsibilities, she said.

Since setting up shop in the center in February, Edelen said she not only has found a professional environment rich with business resources, but also a marked increase in clients because of her accessibility.

Her company "is doing pretty well," she said, and she recently was able to hire a part-time assistant.

With about 15 clients which include a construction business, an insurance company and non-profit organizations, Edelen designs and runs Web sites.

The rent is one of the most important advantages of the center for Edelen.

Office space at the West Piedmont center ? which includes utilities, phone and DSL (digital subscriber line) Internet service and other services ? can cost as little as $125 per month, Fultz said.

Edelen rents two suites, or about 240 square feet, for $300 a month. By comparison, Fultz said, 150 square feet of street-level office space in a typical business complex would go for about $300 and would not include utilities, phone and Internet services.
Having that fixed, low overhead is crucial to success for start-up business, she added.

It also helps take some of the fear out of branching out to start a business, said Fountain.

After about 18 months of planning, Fountain, 30, of Axton, rented a space in the center in August. It was a great decision, he said.

As a shipping broker, Fountain connects businesses needing to ship goods with shipping companies looking to transport those goods, whether by truck, rail or plane. As companies continually look to cut costs, he said, they are outsourcing that task to independent brokers such as himself.

The goal is to have businesses become self-sufficient and ready to "graduate" from the center in about three years, Fultz said. Since opening more than two years ago, three establishments ? an embroidery business, an accountant and a computer consultant ? have graduated and taken their places in the business community, she said.

In addition to providing a business infrastructure, West Piedmont also provides tenants with services that include seminars, start-up loans and a pool of volunteer business leaders from which to draw expertise, Fultz said.

The center's micro loan program offers tenants and graduates low-interest loans from $500 to $20,000 that can be used for start-up needs, such as furniture, equipment, software and the like, she said.

One of the more rewarding consequences of having a number of businesses in the center is "watching (the business owners) feed off one another," said Fultz. "They refer potential clients to one another and introduce one another to people who might be able to help their business."

Fountain said he regularly bounces business ideas off Edelen, Fultz and others in the center. "We believe in helping one another, so if I come across someone interested in Web site development services, I'm going to refer him to Masha," Fountain said.

For potential business people seriously interested in locating in the center, one of the first things Fultz asks them to do ? and a project she helps them with ? is development of a business plan. More often than not, that tells whether the idea has merit.

The business plan is packaged with an application and a credit history that is reviewed by the organization's "Tenant Selection Committee," Fultz said.

Finally, the committee's recommendation then is reviewed by the full board of directors, which decides whether to admit the business, Fultz added.

The center is a regionally funded and directed project serving Martinsville and the counties of Franklin, Henry and Patrick. It was established with $1.6 million in local, state and federal grants.


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