City, county interested in business incubators

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, February 26, 2013

SALISBURY — While the idea of a business start-up center has been incubating for years, discussions surrounding the project are heating up.
The concept of a business incubator — a place where new, small companies share resources and grow until they’re strong enough to make it on their own — gained steam in recent months with both the city of Salisbury and Rowan County showing interest.
City Council and Rowan County commissioners have asked the Economic Development Commission to investigate what it would take to launch a facility. Local business leaders are interested as well.
“I’ve heard from folks from every sector that it’s something they think could be an asset to creating jobs here and evolving and advancing our economy,” EDC Executive Director Robert Van Geons said.
Within 90 days, Van Geons said he expects to have a report ready with a list of options, including where the incubator could be housed, how much it would cost to operate and what programs it might offer.
Most importantly, Van Geons said, the community needs to determine a reasonable expectation of success for the incubator.
Based on incubators in other communities, the project would require a long-term commitment from local leaders, Van Geons said.
“I’m going to lay out a variety of options,” he said. “… As a community, we don’t want to go after a project like this and have it not meet expectations.”
Rowan County commissioners recently asked Van Geons to consider placing an incubator in one of the former Department of Social Services buildings on West Innes Street or Mahaley Avenue.
Mayor Paul Woodson has talked about locating a incubator in downtown Salisbury, possibly in the old Zimmerman’s building, which the city owns.
But Woodson told the Post he would be happy to consider using a former DSS building instead.
“I will work with anybody,” Woodson said. “Nobody is going to accuse Paul Woodson of not working with the county commissioners.”
At a recent meeting of the county commissioners, Commissioner Craig Pierce said one of the former DSS buildings could be used as a business incubator and house the offices of RowanWorks Economic Development, bringing many of the county’s business resources together in one place.
RowanWorks currently rents space from the Rowan County Chamber of Commerce. This year, the EDC will pay $23,436 in rent and utilities, although Van Geons said he is working with the chamber to lower the cost.
Commissioner Chad Mitchell said a business incubator would be good for the county’s economic development, and it could work even if neither of the buildings is available.
County commissioners already have offered the DSS buildings to the Rowan-Salisbury School System as a temporary central office. School system administration staff would move from the dilapidated Long Street building.
The county asked the school system to respond by March 4.
County Manager Gary Page said he expects the school system to pass on the DSS buildings and instead partner with the city, which is considering borrowing $8 million on behalf of the schools to build a new central office downtown.
The Rowan County Board of Elections has requested to move to the Mahaley building, which has been used for one-stop voting in the past.
“We will evaluate their request and consider any other department needing office space,” Page said. “We could then offer the old DSS building to Robert, with renovations paid from an EDA grant.”
Economic Development Administration grants consist of federal funds, Page said.
Like most buildings older than 20 years, the Mahaley facility has asbestos floor tile, Page said. But the asbestos would not have to be removed if it remains covered either by new tile or carpet, he said.
The asbestos was found when the county performed a feasibility study about using the building for a new 911 center. Instead, the county constructed a 911 facility on Old Concord Road.
Van Geons said he expects to release options for a business incubator in conjunction with the EDC’s annual report in coming months. He said he expects the business incubator concept to play a central role in upcoming conversations about economic development, budgets and funding.
While Van Geons has had casual conversations with grant funders and Rowan-Cabarrrus Community College about the business incubator, he said he can’t apply for grants until he has specifics.
Van Geons said he plans to share his findings first with the RowanWorks board of directors, then present the report to City Council, county commissioners and anyone else who is interested.
“When it’s successful, it can be a wonderful thing for your community,” Van Geons said. “It’s a powerful thing that can provide opportunity for younger companies and start-ups.”
A local business incubator may have the opportunity to partner with others in the state or region. The Ben Craig Center at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte has offered to help come up with a model, Van Geons said.
The EDC also has consulted with the Nussbaum Center for Entrepreneurship, a private non-profit corporation that operates a business incubator in Greensboro.
“One thing they said over and over, you have to be 100 percent committed to wanting to do this, or it may not be the right idea,” Van Geons said. “It’s not easy, and it does have cost. And that has to be something you can embrace.”
Woodson said the business incubator is a top goal for City Council. After talking about the concept for years, it’s time to push ahead, he said.
“We really need it,” Woodson said. “We have so many people with good ideas who just need a place to go.”
A business incubator could help attract well-established companies to Salisbury and Rowan County as well, Van Geons said. Incubators are a mark of a progressive community, he said.
“It’s a powerful marketing and PR tool when someone is looking at you and they see those types of innovations going on,” Van Geons said.

Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.