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Chamber, EDC build support for new business strategy in Rowan

SALISBURY — Could the next, great innovative American company start in Rowan County?

Elaine Spalding thinks so.

“We have so many colleges and so much talent, we really could have the next Google in our community,” said Spalding, president of the Rowan County Chamber of Commerce.

If the next Steve Jobs lives in Rowan County, Spalding wants to make sure that he, or she, has the resources and support needed to launch the next Apple. And right now, the community isn’t doing enough to help entrepreneurs, an expert said.

Many people seem to agree. More than 150 turned out at the chamber’s monthly breakfast Thursday to hear Erik Pages, a nationally known expert on small business start-ups, talk about why Rowan needs a new strategy for economic development.

About 30 others — entrepreneurs and angel investors — gathered Wednesday night at the new Integro Technologies headquarters to hear Pages’ pitch for creating a culture that embraces innovation and risk-taking.

Pages also met Thursday with government leaders from Salisbury, Rowan and various towns, as well as education leaders from the public schools, Catawba College, Livingstone College and Rowan-Cabarrus Community College.

His two-day talking tour was organized by Spalding and Robert Van Geons, executive director for RowanWorks Economic Development Commission. They said they hope Pages will jumpstart a movement in Rowan County to embrace and encourage start-up businesses.

RowanWorks and the chamber are urging the community to develop a new strategy for the “entrepreneurial economy,” Van Geons said.

“We want to encourage creating innovative companies that will keep our children here,” he said.

Van Geons said organizers are trying to “galvanize conversations” around entrepreneurship. How those conversations will translate into action has not been determined, but Spalding said she already has a dozen volunteers to serve on a task force she’s forming to help forge the path for entrepreneurial development.

Rowan County needs to do more to build the next economy, Pages said.

In the decade from 2002 to 2012, Rowan had a better job growth rate than both North Carolina and the United States. But in the two years from 2010 to 2012, both the state and country did better than Rowan in job growth and establishment of new businesses.

Rowan also had a worse rate of self-employment from 2010 to 2012 than the state and nation. Entrepreneurs often start as self-employed and then, if their idea takes off, create jobs.

The statistics paint a less-than-stellar picture for entrepreneurial development in Rowan County, Pages said.

Rowan’s performance is average, he said, and the county faces several challenges, including weak start-up performance, lower performance over time and worsening performance against measurements.

Entrepreneurs need a community that supports innovation and risk-taking, as well as easy access to technical help and training, Pages said. That means changing the culture in the community from “K to gray,” or from young children through senior citizens, he said.

Rowan needs “deployment of a targeted set of services focused on business growth,” he said, including access to money other than traditional bank loans and a talented workforce.

Pages urged Rowan to “move away from the idea of incubation, or hatching a business, to acceleration.”

“It’s not enough to get people to start businesses,” he said. “… If you just do that – you won’t have those impacts for the next generation.”

Rowan County has too few “stage one” companies, or those with only a handful of employees that are poised for growth, Pages said. Integro is an example, he said.

City and county leaders have discussed establishing a business incubator, a place where entrepreneurs rent low-cost space and share resources like Internet, copiers and even administrative staff. Pages said while incubators are still useful, the new trend is co-working spaces, which are even less expensive to host.

Across the country, local governments and even private companies have turned extra conference rooms into innovation hubs, providing only heat and air, high-speed Internet and tables and chairs. Freelancers, independent consultants, sole proprietors and other entrepreneurs gather to work and collaborate, Pages said, “basically a Starbucks without the coffee.”

Self-employed workers are one of the largest growing segments of the workforce, he said, and even more people are expected to venture out on their own with Obamacare. Healthcare is no longer an impediment to starting a business, he said.

“Regardless of how you feel about Obamacare from a political standpoint, from an entrepreneurial standpoint, that aspect will be very good thing,” Pages said.

Pages encouraged the community to reward and recognize entrepreneurs with annual awards for best business plan and best new start-up company. Competitions can start in grade schools, he said.

Start-ups may not have collateral for a tradition bank loan and need access to other sources of money, including angel investors and another new trend, crowdfunding, he said.

An angel investor is simply “a rich dude or rich gal” willing to invest in a business idea, Pages said. Crowdfunding has become popular with websites like kickstarter.com but can also be done within a community, he said.

Spalding said dozens of local angel investors who have been quietly funding projects for their family and friends came to Wednesday night’s event with Pages, eager to help spur the new entrepreneurial economy in Rowan. Spalding said Rowan may have its own version of the TV shows “Shark Tank” one day.

Entrepreneurial development does not replace traditional economic development — luring jobs and investment by big companies and encouraging expansion of existing businesses. The two strategies work side-by-side, Pages said.

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