Fulton business incubator has high hopes for former FPD station

Since forming last fall to attract and build new businesses in Callaway County, a committee of the Fulton Area Development Corporation now has a plan outlined to achieve its goals.

Committee Chair Kim Barnes approached the Fulton City Council at its Tuesday meeting to request use of the former Fulton Police Department station building on Market Street as the home of a new business incubator and accelerator program, titled the “Show Me Innovation Center.”

Barnes said that due to its visibility and proximity to the Brick District, the former station would make an ideal place to set up offices and meeting spaces for the program. Among other goals, the Show Me Innovation Center would create an eight to 12-week program designed to provide mentorship, evaluate business ideas and eventually help with start-up funding for budding business people and entrepreneurs in Callaway County.

“We are trying hard not to be reliant, but we want to be realistic,” Barnes told the council. “The police department is great but … right now we don’t have the money to buy. We’re looking to the city for help to use the building and provide utilities, and consider (help with) the renovation of the space if need be.”

Barnes noted she had begun working with city Community Development Officer Gayla Dunn on pursuing grants to help renovate and repurpose the aged structure. The Fulton Police Department moved out of the building in 2012.

The council made no formal decision at Tuesday’s meeting, but many spoke in favor of the idea. Councilmen Mike West and Wayne Chailland both suggested either donating the space for a set number of years or renting it for $1.

“Callaway County turns out a stream of very talented, intelligent young people, and I’m tired of seeing them go somewhere else,” Chailland said. “We need to do something to try and retain them.”

Barnes said the committee formed in fall 2013 after a number of town hall meetings with various business leaders throughout town to analyze what Fulton and Callaway needed to improve the business environment for the creation of new ventures and jobs.

After looking at other communities with similar programs in place, the committee was formed to start the incubator and accelerator programs. Barnes pointed to the success of a program at The Callaway Bank to offer lower-interest loans for businesses moving into the Brick District as an indication that there is a market for growth in Fulton.

The incubator process begins with what Barnes calls an intense period of “discovery,” in which the entrepreneurs will have their ideas, business models and markets tested.

If the ideas survive this “reality check,” the future business owners then go through working on their plan on a logistical level. If they need help scouting locations, learning how to manage finances or payroll or generally developing a method for running a business, they can be matched up with mentors, have access to online training tools or seek answers from the innovation center’s director, whom the committee hopes to hire in August.

Then, once the accelerator program is up and running, the entrepreneurs can receive a small refundable stipend from the innovation center’s cash pool or go in for a larger loan to help start up their businesses. Fundraising for the center is set to begin later this month, and the committee hopes to have the accelerator established by next summer.

Barnes said the Show Me Innovation Center could begin providing services before it moves into the building, and the incubator could also provide resources for established business owners who need further training or mentoring in certain aspects of business management.

Also at the council meeting was Beth Snyder, co-owner of One Canoe Two, a letterpress company based in northern Callaway County. She said she returned to Callaway after a stint working in Tennessee because e-commerce developed and allowed her to market her product nationally. The company has since grown to employ 10 people, but she said a program such as this would have made it much easier for her and other enterprise-minded people to start up and learn aspects of business ownership such as accounting.

“I’m grateful to be from a small town, where everyone helps each other out and they care about their young people,” Snyder told the council. “I believe strongly in this and think we need to help people be able to grow, I want my daughter to be able to grow up here because there are jobs.”

Barnes said that sentiment of keeping opportunities in Callaway by helping to create employment opportunities was a driving force behind the incubator.

“When we looked at Callaway County, we saw signs that there was a slide. Empty storefronts, the population not growing, the median income changing,” Barnes told the Fulton Sun. “We’re not content to let that happen. People like Beth Snyder show there’s a great opportunity to have a quality life here. People don’t want to see their young people leaving because there are no opportunities here.”

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