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Chamber official: Incubator is going strong

Friday, June 13, 2014

By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer

Two firms recently moved into a small business incubator in uptown Martinsville, and negotiations are under way with another potential tenant.

“Things are going really well” at the West Piedmont Business Development Center (WPBDC) since the Martinsville-Henry County Chamber of Commerce took over its management in April, said chamber President Amanda Witt.

The new tenants are PhytoWerks, which Witt described as a chemistry firm involved in testing nutrients, and Newly Defined Development Services LLC, which she said is in the mental health field.

Witt said the chamber is in “strong negotiations” with a business interested in leasing roughly 3,000 square feet of manufacturing space on the second floor of the incubator’s city-owned building at 22 E. Church St.

Although she could not identify that prospective tenant, Witt said it is a newer, “but not brand new,” local company “whose business is growing.”

Space on the building’s third floor recently was shown to another potential tenant, and a current tenant has shown interest in expanding there, she said.

The incubator currently has 15 tenants, and they all “seem to be happy,” Witt told the chamber’s board of directors on Thursday.

The homepage on the incubator’s website states there are 17 tenants, but another page names 15. Witt was unable to explain the discrepancy. None has left the incubator since the chamber started managing it, she said.

“The website’s probably dated ... not as accurate as we’d like for it to be,” she said in a phone interview Thursday night, noting that chamber officials plan to update it soon.

But existing tenants are “a really strong bunch,” she said in an interview after the meeting. “They coexist with each other really well.”

The incubator is like a revolving door, according to Witt, in that newer firms locate there to get services and assistance they need to grow and prosper before eventually moving elsewhere in the community.

That includes access to financial, management and business planning advice and shared resources such as clerical help, office equipment and utilities. That lets tenants spend less money on operating costs so they can spend more on their growth and development, the website shows.

Most businesses stay about three years, but Witt said Thursday the WPBDC does not put a strict time limit on its tenants.

“As long as we can be of benefit” to them, she said, “I don’t see us putting a timeline on” how long they can stay.

Twenty-two former tenants have “graduated” — moved out — since the incubator opened 12 years ago, according to the website.

Solid Stone Fabrics and the Integrative Centers for Science and Medicine had leased the incubator’s largest spaces. Their departures caused a large revenue drop that led the WPBDC’s board to transfer the incubator’s operations to the city. Martinsville City Council then contracted with the Chamber’s Partnership for Economic Growth (C-PEG) to manage the facility, officials have said.

The Integrative Centers was the last tenant to leave the incubator — before the chamber took it over, Witt recalled.

She did not have information on the incubator’s finances. She said she will be better able to discuss finances after the new fiscal year starts on July 1.

However, the chamber has been able to reduce the WPBDC’s expenses, Witt said, such as by using chamber staff to operate it instead of the incubator having staff, as it did before the chamber took over its management.

With a drop in expenses and new tenants coming in, Witt said she is optimistic that the WPBDC will continue to be successful.

She said she thinks the chamber is “a good fit” for the incubator because most of the chamber’s member businesses are smaller firms, so it has much experience in meeting the needs of such businesses.

 

 
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