Business

Entrepreneurship unites Manatee, Sarasota small business boosters

Manatee Chamber of Commerce board president Jonathan Fleece, left, and Inspiration Academy board member Ciaran Dwyer, center, take part in a conversation at a kickoff event for the newly formed Suncoast Center for Entrepreneurship. MATT M. JOHNSON/Bradenton Herald
Manatee Chamber of Commerce board president Jonathan Fleece, left, and Inspiration Academy board member Ciaran Dwyer, center, take part in a conversation at a kickoff event for the newly formed Suncoast Center for Entrepreneurship. MATT M. JOHNSON/Bradenton Herald

BRADENTON -- Local entrepreneurs can now have a one-stop-shop when looking for help in getting their businesses off the ground.

This week, the newly formed Suncoast Center for Entrepreneurship officially opened. The group, an amalgamation of four area organizations helping new business owners in the startup phase, is intent on building up a portion of the business community that accounts for most of the jobs in Manatee County.

Partners in the venture are Inspiration Academy in Bradenton, the Manatee Chamber of Commerce, The HuB co-working center in Sarasota, business incubator Spark Growth and Cincinnati Christian University.

The center's backers also intend to bring private and state money into play to fund the best business ideas out there. That, center partners say, would help put small business on par with big business in Florida. Currently, 89 percent of state business incentive dollars go to businesses with more than 100 employees, according to a study recently published by national policy center Good Jobs First.

That funding initiative took center stage at the Suncoast Center's kickoff event Thursday night. Ron Heineman, an instructor at Cincinnati Christian and part-time Lakewood Ranch resident since 2006, devoted the majority of his keynote speech to announcing the formation of the Suncoast Angels. The group is designed to provide seed money for new small businesses. The angel investment fund would also offer matching funds to attract state business incentive dollars.

Heineman said they should have no trouble drawing investors, since good business concepts are succeeding in the present economic climate.

"There's more capital than good

deals out there," Heineman said.

The fund and the Suncoast Center are getting a boost from the Cincinnati area. The university will provide instructors to teach entrepreneurship classes at Inspiration Academy and at a business boot camp early next year. The angel fund was formed as a chapter of the Queen City Angels, an established Cincinnati angel fund that has already attracted millions of dollars in state matching money, Heineman said.

The Suncoast Center concept got its start six months ago when Heineman and the directors of Inspiration Academy started talking about forming an area-wide, inclusive entrepreneurial organization. John Bowman, an academy director, said Inspiration is already home to a half dozen businesses that got their start in office space in the school. He considers those businesses the Suncoast Center's first success stories.

"We just made a name for it," Bowman said.

The kickoff event drew about 100 business owners and leaders to the Manatee Performing Arts Center. Nick Choat, a Sports Clips franchisee who owns hair styling shops in Bradenton and Sarasota, said he's a believer in bringing resources together to get more people working for themselves and creating jobs.

"You need more critical mass," Choat said.

Sara Hand, one of the founders of Spark Growth, feels the same way.

"If we work together, we can really do more," she said.

In addition to offering classes and funding, the center will also have mentors available to assist new businesses owners with some of the less obvious tasks that come at startup, including payroll, bookkeeping and tax obligations. Entrepreneurs looking to start a business or who need assistance with a business they're already operating can contact the center through its website, centerforentrepreneurship.net. Sponsors interested in becoming part of the center's work may also inquire through the website.

Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027 or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.

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