W&J relaunches survey on business incubator feasibility

W&J relaunches survey on business incubator feasibility

January 12, 2014
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Photo courtesy of Washington & Jefferson College
Julie Throckmorton, foundation and corporate relations officer at W&J, said the college has considered launching a business incubator for years.

The birthing process has been difficult, but Washington & Jefferson College wants this baby.

W&J’s plans for a local business incubator endure despite lukewarm response to a marketing survey that was launched in August to gauge the volume of interest small businesses may have in joining.

Survey results provided little definitive guidance as to whether the school should pursue or dash the incubator concept.

“They were mixed,” said Jim Greenwood, whose Greenwood Consulting Group Inc. created and conducted the survey. W&J hired his Sanibel Island, Fla.-based company through part of a $186,000 grant from the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation in Pittsburgh.

“Some businesses were interested in being included,” he added, “but there were some concerns about the number that were interested. Some dropped out.”

There were enough positives, however, to keep the idea going. So Greenwood Consulting and the college are again asking owners of small businesses, and individuals planning to start one, to participate in the online survey.

W&J and Greenwood reopened the 14-page survey in late December, a virtual rehash of its predecessor called the Revised Washington County Business Incubator Survey. It can be accessed at tiny.cc/washincubatorrevised through January, when it will be shut down.

The goal is a larger sampling of companies that may be interested in becoming tenants or service users at an incubator in Washington County.

“The number of potential tenants and service users concerned us,” Greenwood said.

“There are some real strengths. There is a lot of demand for business assistance. We feel an incubator would help link businesses to business-assistance resources. The college’s interest in the project is another strength. It also looks like there could be federal grant money from the Economic Development Administration, which wouldn’t put the burden on the city or county.”

Greenwood will present a seminar, “Federal Funding for Small Businesses,” from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Thursday in Yost Auditorium in the college’s Burnett Center. The session will be free and open to the public.

Julie Throckmorton, foundation and corporate relations officer, is at the forefront of the initiative at W&J. She said simply: “It’s a matter of figuring out if the community, as a whole, is interested in having (an incubator). We’re looking for more businesses. The feeling is they’re out there, it’s just that they don’t know about the survey or did not respond to it.”

Throckmorton said the survey is open to anyone.

“We’re taking another shot at identifying clients for an incubator,” said Greenwood, co-owner of the consulting group with his wife Gail. “We want to to make sure we shake trees as much as we can to identify folks who are interested.”

W&J has been interested for at least 14 years. Dr. Brian Mitchell, then W&J president, raised the incubator prospect in February 2000. Then Bill Mayfield, a former director of the Entrepreneurial Studies Center, talked about it in early 2001.

The subject came up two other times that year, after W&J received a $50,000 grant from the Benedum Foundation and a $150,000 federal grant earmarked for a new recreational and economic center.

Still intent on starting the incubator, W&J made a pitch in 2011 for $962,436 from Washington County’s Local Share Account. But the LSA panel rejected the nonprofit, tax-exempt college’s bid.

The intent, for a long time, was to develop the city of Washington’s first business incubator. That, in fact, was the location indicated when the survey was introduced five months ago. But respondents suggesting alternate sites forced revision of the survey at that time.

“People mentioned places besides downtown Washington, like Southpointe, locations closer to I-79 and the Trinity Point area,” Throckmorton said.

“There were concerns that it was too focused on downtown Washington,” said Greenwood, whose group works on incubator projects nationwide, about half of them with colleges. “There could be one site or maybe multiple sites, maybe one in downtown Washington and another in Canonsburg or Southpointe.”

One in Washington would be convenient for the college financially and geographically. It’s the former United Way building on Cherry Avenue, which is virtually empty. W&J owns and uses it for storage, and the structure certainly is nearby.

W&J’s Entrepreneurial Studies Center or Small Business Center could end up running an incubator there.

But if, not where, is Throckmorton’s primary concern. She simply wants it to happen.

“We don’t want this to be just a W&J thing,” she said. “We want it to be something that a community would want and would benefit a community.”

Registration is required for next Thursday’s seminar at cuselton@washjeff.edu or 724-223-6003.

Rick Shrum joined the Observer-Reporter as a reporter in 2012, after serving as a section editor, sports reporter and copy editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Rick has won seven individual writing awards, including two Golden Quills.

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