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Chamber sees options to cut operating costs
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Amanda Witt, President Martinsville Henry County Chamber of Commerce.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Martinsville-Henry County Chamber of Commerce can operate a local small business incubator more affordably and effectively than the incubator itself or the city can, the chamber’s president thinks.

A lack of enough operating revenue recently prompted the West Piedmont Business Development Center’s (WPBDC) board to turn over the incubator’s operations to the city, which owns the building at 22 E. Church St. uptown.

Tenants at the incubator share resources such as clerical assistance, office equipment and utilities to help them initially reduce their operating costs so they can put more money toward growth and development.

The Martinsville Department of Community Development took over day-to-day management of the incubator recently. The chamber is talking with the city about managing the facility, which would stay under city ownership.

At first, at least, “we would use existing staff” at the chamber to oversee the incubator, which would save on operating costs, said chamber President Amanda Witt.

Originally, the incubator had two full-time staff members — an executive director and an assistant. The assistant was let go recently because of the financial situation, and the director now is working for one of the tenants, officials have said.

A part-time city employee, Jane Toler, is working at the incubator to handle tenants’ needs, said Susan McCulloch, the city’s community planner.

If existing employees of the chamber can oversee the incubator, it would save “a big chunk of the budget,” she said.

The incubator’s budget this fiscal year is $169,255. Personnel costs generally have been about 58 percent of the expenses, McCulloch said.

Among other expenses are website and office equipment maintenance, supplies, insurance, and janitorial services, she said.

Witt did not rule out the possibility of the chamber eventually hiring a part-time person to oversee the facility.

McCulloch reasoned that because it already has close ties to local businesses, the chamber could better reach them in marketing the incubator.

“A lot of (the startup firms) at the incubator are chamber members and we know them already,” Witt said.

Small businesses comprise about 80 percent of the chamber’s membership, so “we definitely want to promote entrepreneurship” in the area, she said.

Furthermore, the chamber provides programs and services to help businesses grow and prosper, as well as network with one another, she added.

Since the incubator was launched in 2002, the chamber has had a seat on its board. Lance Heater, president of Southwestern Virginia Gas Co., is vice chairman of the board and the chamber’s current representative.

Witt has served on the board, and she worked at the incubator while in college.

The city and the chamber are working on a memorandum of understanding or a formal contract, according to City Manager Leon Towarnicki.

He could not be reached for comment for this story. However, he has said that “the chamber appears to be the most promising direction for us” (the city) as far as long-term management of the incubator.

If it takes over managing the incubator, the chamber would “assist tenants in any way we can” and listen to — and try to fulfill — their needs as well as those of prospective tenants, Witt said.


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