Officials: Incubator drawing interest

April 4, 2014

By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer

New small businesses are showing interest in the West Piedmont Business Development Center (WPBDC) as the Martinsville-Henry County Chamber of Commerce begins managing it. 

Chamber President Amanda Witt said three start-up firms recently inquired about moving into the incubator and she is optimistic they will do so soon.

The WPBDC strives to help its tenants succeed by providing them access to financial, management and business planning advisers and letting them share resources such as clerical assistance, office equipment and utilities. That lets the firms spend less money on operating costs so they can spend more on their growth and development, the incubator’s website shows. 

Two of the prospective firms are in the health care industry, Witt said. The other firm makes products to sell, she said, adding that it needs both office and light manufacturing space that the incubator can provide.

Those businesses would join 17 already at the incubator, which is in a city-owned building at 22 E. Church St. uptown. 

Twenty-two former tenants have “graduated” — left to make it on their own — since the incubator opened 12 years ago.

An incubator is “kind of like a revolving door,” Witt said, in that tenants get help they need to prosper and eventually move elsewhere in the community. 

Most tenants stay in the incubator for about three years before leaving, she indicated, but there is no definite time limit.

Solid Stone Fabrics and the Integrative Centers for Science and Medicine had leased the incubator’s largest spaces. Their departures led to a large revenue drop that prompted the WPBDC’s board to transfer the facility’s operations to the city. Martinsville City Council recently contracted with the Chamber’s Partnership for Economic Growth (C-PEG) to manage the incubator. 

C-PEG, an affiliate of the chamber, supports and uses private money for efforts to boost the local economy.

As part of the contract, the WPBDC’s board disbanded as of March 31. C-PEG began managing the incubator the following day. 

Martinsville City Manager Leon Towarnicki will be added to C-PEG’s board, Witt said, noting that the board has not had a city representative before.

The incubator’s tenants now will make their checks payable to C-PEG, but Witt said she envisions no changes being made to their leases. 

Witt said the chamber is the perfect organization to manage the incubator because working with small businesses is “what we do” constantly.

Of the chamber’s 638 members, “the bulk are small businesses,” she said. “We’re part of a lot of different networks that reach out” to such firms, along with entrepreneurs. 

Basically, the chamber will learn how to manage the incubator and figure out what it needs to be more successful over time, she indicated.

Chamber officials will talk with tenants to find out if there are services they want the incubator to provide that they are not now receiving, Witt said. 

Officials also want to hold a meeting with other people in the community who help small businesses and start-up firms to get their ideas, she said.

The chamber plans to develop some small business-related seminars at the incubator for tenants and non-tenants, Witt said. 

“We hope to get more people inside to see what the incubator has to offer” so they will be encouraged to locate their businesses there, she said.

The more tenants that are in the WPBDC, the more money it will make, which means its finances will improve. 

In the meantime, Witt thinks the chamber will be able to restrain the incubator’s operating costs by using chamber staff to run it.

The incubator’s budget this fiscal year is a little more than $169,000. About 35 percent of its funds come from Henry County and the city. The rest comes from tenants’ leases, officials have said. 

Robbie Knight, the chamber’s business services manager, “will probably spend most of his time” at the incubator, Witt said. He will be in charge of developing training opportunities, workshops and seminars for small businesses, she said.

Knight will not actually manage the incubator, Witt said. However, tenants that need to talk to a chamber employee can contact him or her, she said. 

In the fiscal year that will start July 1, Witt said, the chamber may consider hiring a part-time employee to work solely at the incubator.

The city’s contract with C-PEG will run through June 30, 2015, at which time it could be extended if C-PEG, chamber and city officials are interested. 


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