By Brianna Wray
The Times 

Big Strides for Small Business

Incubator and coworking spaces make room for growth


August 8, 2019

Brianna Wray

Jay Ball (l) of Jay's Garage was able to grow into the space which now includes a full garage, storage and a front customer service area. Jay's Garage employs two full time mechanics, Jose Vital and Andres Lara (r), one customer service specialist, Zandra Price and one intern, Juniper Kerr.

Running a small business is a huge undertaking. Seemingly endless resources pour into a venture that, hopefully, will service its community successfully. It's no wonder owners often refer to their business as their "baby."

Even if a business owner is independently wealthy, supporting their baby isn't easy. Determining what a business needs to thrive sometimes isn't wholly possible until the running is already underway.

The best way to mitigate some of the risks associated with starting a new business is to start small and grow as need allows or demands. Before purchasing a brick and mortar location, renting office space can be a good way to get the ball rolling. For business owners, making use of incubator spaces may be the difference between a short life and longevity.

The Port of Columbia's Rock Hill Industrial Park is home to a wide variety of businesses.

"A big part of my job is helping small businesses wherever they're located in Columbia County," says Kathryn Witherington, economic development director for the Port. The Port has been incubating businesses for years, but at a large scale, now they're thinking smaller.

"Other than the incubator space I'm currently working on, there are no openings. When we do have openings, they get snatched up quickly. We had two tenants move out in February; we listed them March 15th and they were leased by the 20th," Witherington said.

The new incubator space is located in the former Vestas office building on Cameron Street, which was vacated after 10 years when Vestas moved their employees up on the hill with their windmills. The building is divided into three bays, creating a space that is unique with a lot of private offices of varying sizes but, as a whole, is too large to suit the office needs of most businesses in the area. For that reason, the Port is renting out offices within the space to individual users who would share common areas, including a copy room, kitchen, and classroom/conference room.

The idea bloomed from necessity says Witherington, who ran into Levi Sowerby at a park. Sowerby mentioned he was looking for an interim location for his new business, VIVE Studios, while he worked toward buying a building on Main Street.

"Our plan had initially been and still largely is to touch it up in the next fiscal year, but I told him, if you're willing to be a guinea pig and work with me on it, we could make something happen sooner," said Witherington, "so I appreciate his flexibility."

The extent of the renovations will be determined in October when next year's budget is drawn up, but the space is already fully functional. The offices are well lit, making them useful for a wide range of occupations such as artists, counselors, massage therapists, etc.

The rent for the largest office is $250/mo. The smaller individual prices would be somewhere between $100-$150/mo. The length of the lease is flexible, too. VIVE, for example, is on a month-to-month lease.

"We're not looking to make a profit, we're looking to support small businesses. It's a place to start and maybe someone loves it and they stay here or maybe they expand and move downtown," Witherington said.

For this project, the emphasis is on new, small businesses, but more established, larger entities haven't been forgotten. Mark Lewis, the CEO and owner of Sustainable Fiber Technologies, is planning to build a more upscale coworking space.

"He has a similar vision of individual executive suites and cool conference rooms but with high tech, innovative stuff," Witherington said.

For business owner Paco Negrete of Paco's Custom Coatings, getting started was half the battle, but his business is thriving. Since moving into Rock Hill four months ago the response has been encouraging.

"I've been picking up a lot of new clients. I like it a lot, it's pretty peaceful and it's allowed me to expand. I wouldn't have gotten to that level without this move," Negrete said.

Looking over the roster of businesses already established at Rock Hill, one might assume competition and industry overlap is an issue. Instead, tenants come together with the shared goal of better serving clients.

"They've formed a partnership. Jay's has sent clients to Paco and on days when Jay's is backed up, Paco will come over and help with oil changes," Witherington said.

Similar to incubator office spaces, coworking spaces are another option for small business owners. These tend to be professionally furnished and equipped with amenities. Walla Walla businesses Emberfuel, run by Keith Nerdin, and In Town Ventures, run by Charysa and Jose Chavira, are examples. Both rent for between $200-$275 per month with little to no personal storage space.

The difference between coworking and incubator is the terms of the deal. Incubator spaces typically have subsidized rent, and/or a lease limit, and accommodate a more open of business types. Incubators are raw, customizable spaces, whereas coworking spaces are furnished and will have other tenants who are also professionals and will expect a quiet environment.

Depending on the type of business, there may be some precedent for space that would work best for the particular scenario. The Port of Walla Walla, hoping to foster small business growth among wineries, has incubators tailored to winery-specific needs.

Their incubators are a cluster of five, 1,600-square-foot buildings fitted with a crush pad and space for production and tasting. With six-year leases that start low, then ratchet annually, small label wine businesses get a chance at establishing their brands among their peers.

The Port of Walla Walla, in addition to its industrial sites offers a suite of online resources on universal business topics from getting started to compliance with government regulations, managing employees and business growth.

For Waitsburg locals, the Port of Walla Walla lists the Waitsburg Business Park. Operated by Harry Johnson Plumbing & Excavation, the site has endless potential. No building has been constructed yet, which is a plus for a company looking to start from the very literal ground up.

The Waitsburg Commercial Club hosts pop up shop sales events for smaller business owners in Town Hall on the north end of Main Street. These are ideal for a craftsperson or boutique looking for indoor vendor opportunities with customer foot traffic, especially near the holidays.

The fee is $50/mo. for two full days; and $25 for each additional day. The project is currently on temporary hold, but in the interim, event nights, where vendors can set up at a nominal fee, are scheduled to fill the gap. The next is Ladies Night to be held Aug. 14 at 6 p.m. with food, Bunco and shopping.


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