BRADENTON -- A proposed business incubator for Bradenton could be housed in a former city fire station in hopes activity there will sound the alarm for budding entrepreneurs.
Sara Hand, business consultant and venture capitalist of SP Hand and Associates, along with her partner Stan Schultes, is working with Bradenton city officials to use a city-owned vacant building at 912 7th Ave. E, as the proposed incubator's first home. The working title is the Innovation Center. The name will likely change.
"The primary function for an incubator is to provide training, mentoring and connections for the company, to provide them a better chance for succeeding," Schultes said.
The two are also hosting the second annual Spark Growth Regional Leadership Conference this week with the Tampa Bay Partnership, a consortium of the largest businesses in Tampa Bay. The conference, held at the Manatee Performing Arts Center on Thursday and Friday, brings people together from across industries to learn new ways of approaching their business or industry.
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Hand and Schultes are working on a publicly funded business incubator that entrepreneurs can use as work space, with the backing of University of South Florida Connect incubator support program and other public and private investors, the Herald first reported in October. Entrepreneurs use the space until the business is ready to "graduate" from the incubator and have a presence of its own, ideally in the community.
"The idea is to get them embedded in the community so when they graduate their companies, they stay here," Schultes said. "An incubator is part of an eco system of job growth."
No lease or memorandum of understanding has been signed for the Innovation Center because Schultes and Hand still need to complete funding, said Carl Callahan, city clerk and treasurer. City Council gave a consensus agreement to Callahan last month for talks to continue, he added, and to have the city provide the building.
"If it makes it and gets off the ground, we would love to be a part of it," Callahan said. The City Council would need to approve any agreement for the building.
If all goes well, the two expect to make an announcement regarding progress later this month, Hand said, and could announce soon when the incubator can accept applications.
The incubator hopes to become an affiliate of an university incubator program such as USF Connect or University of Central Florida's Business Incubation Program, Schultes said, but wouldn't become a university-controlled incubator.
Businesses would have to go through an eight-session certification course called Excellence in Entrepreneurship created by the UCF Technology Incubator to gain admission, Schultes said.
The Innovation Center is proposed as a publicly funded incubator that is seeking both private funds and contributions from universities and government entities. The incubator would not have an equity stake in the businesses that start there.
Invigorating Manatee Village
Mayor Wayne Poston says the incubator would complement activity going around the historic Manatee Village neighborhood.
"We can have it right down the street from Tropicana, and there's land there for sale, and I think it would help develop that whole area," Poston said.
Other city plans could also help the incubator invigorate the Manatee Village neighborhood.
City blueprints include development of an extension of Riverwalk, along with the development of Riviera Southshore, which is expected to include 690 homes and 54,400 square feet of retail and office north of Manatee Avenue near Ninth and 14th streets bordered by the Manatee River. The Riviera Southshore project is under contract for development, according to city documents.
"There's not a huge number of businesses there now, and what we're hoping this will do is spark growth in that neighborhood," Schultes said.
The neighborhood, Hand added, could become a vibrant center of entrepreneurial activity.
About 50,000 to 60,000 cars travel by that 7th Avenue building every day, helping create visibility of activity there, said David Gustafson, executive director of the Downtown Development Authority. Hopefully some of those cars will be filled with talented entrepreneurs.
"When I talked to businesses here in town or businesses outside this area that are wanting to relocate, they all want more educated, higher experience, more talented people," Gustafson said. "I think what Sara and Stan are doing is going to help identify those particular needs."
The former fire station has gone through several lives. The building was once the offices for Bradenton Housing and Community Development and Manatee County Housing Authority, Callahan said.
The 4,700-square-foot building appears to have spent some of its life as a bank, if the vault door installed there is any indication, Schultes said. While the fire pole is no longer there, the holes to mount the pole are intact, and maybe one day it could return, he said. He hopes a new name for the incubator can be an homage to the fire house.
The first floor is in good shape while the second floor needs some renovations, Schultes said. Art work would be needed, too.
"There's a big wall that is looking like it should have a mural on it," Hand said.
Long road ahead
The plan faces many challenges. The incubator has 50 percent of its funds raised, thanks in part to a two-to-one matching grant from USF Connect. The hardest part of the fundraising is over, and the second half should go by faster, Schultes said.
"Nobody wants to be the first," he said.
The two are seeking funding and partnerships with Manatee County Government and the Bradenton Area Economic Development Corporation, which can help gather funds from private investors and companies.
Fundraising will be a continual activity because the rents and programs collected for publicly funded incubators do not provide enough to make them self-sustaining.
"The payback to the community is the tax return through job growth," Schultes said. And there are the jobs themselves.
For every dollar invested, $10 came back into the community for four of UCF's mature incubators in the Orlando metro area, the university's 2011 study found. For nine of its incubators, the return was $5.04 for every dollar, according to the report.
Other programs for the local center are being developed, including a soft landing pad program that would allow international visitors to start businesses here before having to pay international business taxes.
"IMG Academy is bringing people from around the world, and folks come here and stay here for several years, and we could give them a place to land," Schultes said.
The incubator needs instructors and staff, a special challenge because it is not located next to a major college or university where professors can easily drop by, Poston said.
When the Bradenton incubator is operating, the work isn't over for the two investors. The two are using a 2011 business plan by Axcel Innovation LLC in Charlottesville, Va., whose study focused on best practices for incubators in Manatee and Sarasota counties. Based on that plan, Schultes and Hand will also work on starting another publicly funded incubator in mid-Sarasota County, between the City of Sarasota and the City of North Port, Schultes said.
Charles Schelle, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.