Terms like "co-working," "soft landing" and others in the realm of business incubation may not be familiar. Even when Spark Growth's Stan Schultes and Sara Hand began the process of setting up Bradenton's only business incubator more than a year ago, it was a foreign concept to many.
"The idea was so new to us in the community, and now it's embraced," says Bradenton Downtown Development Authority Chairman Vernon DeSear. "It's really quite exciting."
Schultes and Hand began looking for space to start the incubator about 18 months ago, and those in the economic development circles saw the value immediately. So much so, Bradenton offered the pair the historic firehouse at 912 Seventh Ave. E.
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The building had seen better days as the former town hall in old downtown Bradenton into the 1940s, and then served as a firehouse and police station for decades. Today, renovations have transformed the old firehouse into a potential economic development gold mine for the area while retaining its historic charm.
"Most people are looking for something shiny and new, but we saw a chance to offer something charming, unique and really cool," said Schultes, Spark Growth's director of operations.
Uniqueness is the goal for the innovation center. It offers a variety of opportunities for the existing and hopeful entrepreneurs.
"In today's social media driven world, what used to work doesn't now," said Hand, Spark Growth executive director. "The whole world is completely different now. Companies that are successful are the ones that put the customers in the center and understand they exist to support their customers. It's kind of like the school system exists to support the children, and government exists to support its citizens."
That kind of success is grounded in the co-working concept, where a single idea in one person's mind can be expanded and developed by others in open discussion. Free sessions are offered at the station every Tuesday.
Traditional incubators, said Schultes, are still caught in the old way of doing
"They have a maze of offices and you walk in, shut the door and do your work," he said. "It's not an interactive community building process, and that's what we are working hard at here, to build a culture of community collaboration."
Privacy is offered at the Bradenton facility, but Schultes said if someone is just getting started, co-working can surprise people in how much they learn about available resources. And Hand understands it might be a new concept to some, but it doesn't cost them anything to try.
"The old world has a fixed mindset, while this world has a mindset that is more flexible and open to growth," said Hand. "That's why the millennials are so important, because their world is online -- but when you think about it, online is being networked."
Business incubators attract investors looking to be a part of great new ideas, and investors look for projects that involve multiple people -- because together, said Hand, "The project gets bigger, but leaner and more effective with better results."
This moment in history is unique, Schultes notes, because five generations are still in the workforce. The goal, he said, is to bring those generations together.
The station offers multiple ways to do that. Spark Growth puts on weekly educational series where successful entrepreneurs share the secrets to their success and holds community events. Even not at capacity yet, the center has hosted 27 community events and served 339 entrepreneurs in some capacity.
This year, a full incubation program will be offered and the station will receive its soft landing designation, where it will serve as a base for companies outside of the area looking to expand to Bradenton, but will remain headquartered elsewhere. Schultes said it can work the other way around, too, in helping local businesses expand to other areas through the soft landing network with incubators worldwide.
Five international companies have voiced interest in the station's soft landing launch, as businesses continue to look at Bradenton's potential.
"We'll look back in a couple of years and remember this part of it was hard," said Hand. "Someone said Bradenton takes a while to get something started, but once they decide to do it, they get it done. Providing education in how to grow a sustainable business is part of getting that done and remember that 70 percent of businesses that start out of an incubator remain in their community."
That, says Schultes, is economic development at the ground level.
To learn more visit station2innovation.com or call 941-877-1599.
Mark Young, Herald urban affairs reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041 or follow him on Twitter @urbanmark2014.