Business as Usual: Entrepreneurial Center helps get new enterprises off the ground
by Laura Camper
lcamper@annistonstar.com
Sep 24, 2012 | 3483 views |  0 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print
With the sluggish economy, economic development has been the battle cry from many local political candidates as they have campaigned their way through the first half of the year.

But while candidates have promised jobs, what kind and how they’ll find them has been vague.

Experts say they have answers. According to Linda Swann, associate secretary of the Alabama Department of Commerce, about 75 percent of job growth in Alabama has traditionally come from existing industry. For local candidates, then, promoting local businesses is very important to generating jobs in the community.

On Greenbrier-Dear Road in Anniston is the Greenbrier Entrepreneurial Center, created to help local businesses get off the ground. The center, a business incubator managed by the Calhoun County Economic Development Council, provides rent, shared office equipment and staff along with mentoring to local small-business owners as they get their projects off the ground.

Will Estell and Dan Freeman, co-owners of publishing and website development company 3G Media, have been in the center for two years. They each worked separately from home for years before deciding to become partners, Freeman said.

The center has helped them tremendously, Freeman said.

“It’s got support; we feel like the management team here is very, very open to business,” Freeman said. “We’re not just like an island by ourselves. They’re here to support us.”

The center provides office space, mentoring and classes. It also provides an environment with other small business owners to talk to, compare notes with and learn from, Freeman said.

Their business is a statewide company so their customers are not here, Estell said. So, most of their dealings with the community are within the center, he said.

“I think that the business climate in Calhoun County is just the right size,” Estell said. “We have the support mechanism that would exist in a larger metropolis, but you still have the camaraderie of a small town.”

Estell, who has had an office in Destin, Fla., for years for his Beaches Resorts & Parks magazine, said much of the work is done in the Anniston office because his access to resources in the community is much better.

“For instance, we use interns from Jacksonville State University,” Estell said. “If I’m calling Florida State, I’m not going to get interns that easy.”

The center has helped more than one local business get off the ground. Changer & Dresser is a graduate of the program. The company, a branch of a Japanese company established in Anniston in 2001 to manufacture arc welding points and nozzles, bought a building from the council and in August approached the city of Anniston for a tax abatement to expand again. The expansion, the company estimates, will add 13 jobs over the next three years.

In addition to the center, the council, which works to recruit industry to the county, has bought hundreds of acres of property in the county and built speculative buildings — a shell of an industrial facility — in a variety of sizes in Anniston and Ohatchee. Another spec building is under construction in Oxford, said Don Hopper, executive director of the council. In the past decade, he said, it has sold about six of the buildings, which are as much a way to draw companies to the county as they are to give the companies a place to set up shop.

“A large percentage of companies, when they first start their search, they’ll start their search with buildings,” Hopper said.

In the past as he’s showed the shell buildings to business owners, they have spied sites where they would prefer to build and set up shop there, Hopper said.

But large developable sites are hard to come by in the county, he added.

“We are topographically challenged,” he said, explaining that the hills and mountainous areas that are one of his favorite parts of living in the area can make it difficult for industry to find sites suitable to develop.

So, when the council sees one for sale, it will try to market it or even buy it to be marketed later.

“If you don’t have product on the shelf, it’s hard to get companies to look,” Hopper said.

It’s been a fairly successful strategy, Hopper said, and the council has purchased some 58 acres at McClellan between Berman, Eglin and Iron Mountain roads and committed to erecting another building there. The structures, about 60,000 square feet, are for generically industrial use with eight to 12 acres of land, to accommodate a variety of industries.

Near the site is International Automotive Components and the property where Alabama Gas Company is building a new facility.

“We have target markets that we look at,” Hopper said. “We’re central to a lot of automotive OEMs,” he said, using the acronym for original equipment manufacturers.

Many companies that supply those manufacturers are looking to settle in the South, Hopper said. In addition, the Anniston Army Depot could help attract defense companies because of the skilled labor already here, he added.

The majority of leads Hopper gets come from the Department of Commerce, he said. The department works in a team effort with the Department of Transportation, the Alabama Legislature, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management and local governments to try to find a home for businesses scouting for a location, Swann said. When the department gets a query from a company, it will send out a request for proposal with specifications from the company to local governments and agencies, including the council. Then, it will take the responses and present them to the company.

But competition is fierce. The company may have made the same request to 10 other states it is considering.

“The trick for us is to stay in the game,” Swann said.

Toby Bennington, Anniston’s city planner, said it’s important to have all the benefits, statistics and demographics of the area for companies and to be open to whatever might come. He said it’s just as important to know future needs based on existing facilities. For instance, given the presence of McClellan’s recreation complex, the likelihood is that athletic events will bring more families to Anniston for weekend trips. That means hotels are a likely future need for the city. In addition, the Coldwater Mountain Bike and Chief Ladiga trails will bringing cyclists to town, who will be looking for restaurants, cafes and gathering places in the downtown area near the trails, he said.

So, while he continues to focus on fulfilling the retail needs in Anniston — the powerhouse of local government revenue — Bennington also will be looking for ways to build a work environment and residential areas, which he sees as future needs.

“It goes hand-in-hand,” Bennington said.

Star staff writer Laura Camper: 256-235-3545. On Twitter @LCamper_Star.
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