(Photo courtesy of Washington & Jefferson College)
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A former newspaper building in the small Pennsylvania city of Washington is being reimagined as an incubator that would breathe new life into its Main Street business district.
The Washington Area Business Incubator would also be a way to strengthen the relationship between the city and Washington & Jefferson College, which sits just a few blocks off Main Street, but can sometimes seem worlds away.
Max Miller, director of the entrepreneurial studies program at W&J, said the idea for the incubator has been brewing for a few years. The college first conducted a study of the project’s feasibility in 2013.
“We wanted to figure out how we could create a symbiotic ecosystem” with the college and the city, Miller said.
For small businesses in Washington County, Miller said, it can be difficult to find the opportunities that are available to them.
“There’s no real coworking spaces, so they miss out on that peer-to-peer learning,” said Miller. “Part of what we want to do is help create that culture. A lot of them don’t know what they don’t know.”
Once the plan for the project began coming together, with the support of local businesses and the chamber of commerce, Miller said, the incubator needed a home. Finding space was expected to be a significant challenge.
But then a chamber representative brought the idea to Observer-Reporter publisher Tom Northrop. The newspaper company has pledged two buildings to the project: Its former circulation building on South Main Street and another vacant building on nearby Strawberry Way. The incubator will be able to use the spaces rent-free for 10 years. (Full disclosure: This reporter worked at the Observer-Reporter from 2001 to 2004.)
This is not the first time a Pennsylvania newspaper has housed an incubator: Philadelphia Media Network and Ben Franklin Technology Partners have been running Project Liberty since 2011.
Northrop has said there was no hesitation when the incubator opportunity was presented. “It’s the most exciting thing to come across my desk in a long time.”
The relationship between the city and the W&J has seen it share of strain, most notably in a dispute during the 1990s over the college’s tax-exempt status, which ended up being decided by the state Supreme Court. Miller says finding a way to improve the connection with the city will only benefit the college in the long run.
Washington County spans about 861 square miles but, as of the recent census, has just over 200,000 people across its 15 municipalities. The county lost about 287 people between 2015 and 2016, Census figures show, but that may be partly due to a reduction in jobs created in the area by Marcellus Shale drilling.
So, it’s an area ripe for some new ideas.
“We’ll be able to contribute that intellectual capital,” Miller said, adding that students from the school’s entrepreneurship program are expected to be involved with the incubator. Miller himself brings some expertise with startups to the table: He came to W&J from Pittsburgh, where he worked with startups as chief operating officer of economic development organization Urban 21.
They haven’t narrowed down what kinds of businesses will be part of the incubator, but Miller said they’re not planning to limit it only to tech startups. Retail businesses, like the ones that have begun to spring up on Main Street over the past several years, are likely to play a role, but he said the goal is to listen to what businesses want and need.
“Some of them are pre-revenue, some need to figure out how to manage growth, so they need marketing expertise,” he said.
Longer term, Miller said, the goal will be to help the companies who have gone through the incubator system to be ready for the next steps. “We’re looking at it like a relay race; we can’t just graduate them from the incubator and hand them off into the abyss,” he said. “We need to help them keep running.”
The fundraising process for the $2.5 million project, which includes an overhaul of the old O-R buildings, is still being raised, with $250,000 coming from the county’s Local Share Account funds. Miller estimates if all goes according to plan, the incubator could be ready before the end of 2018.
But Miller isn’t waiting until the bricks-and-mortar are ready to get started.
“We’ll start in the winter on workshops and other things to help local businesses answer some of the questions they have,” he said. “We look at this as just the first cog in the redevelopment of the region.”