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Business incubator progresses

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Plans for a downtown business incubator will help round out Springfield’s economic development offerings, officials say, and provide a much-needed service for startup small businesses in a targeted group of industries. Though renovations are still under way for the center, a board comprising local businesspeople and community members will begin accepting tenant applications in the fall.  

The incubator, dubbed the Robert W. Plaster Center for Free Enterprise and Business Development, will be located in the former Willowbrook Foods building as part of IDEA Commons, said Allen Kunkel, associate vice president of economic development for Missouri State University and director of the Jordan Valley Innovation Center. IDEA Commons is an MSU concept designed to bring together innovation, design, entrepreneurship and the arts in downtown Springfield.

Kunkel said the renovated facility should open in August 2012, and in addition to incubator space for startup businesses, it will be the new home of MSU’s Small Business & Technology Development Center and other resources for entrepreneurs who are working to jump-start their businesses.

MSU acquired the 121,224-square-foot Willow Brook building at 405 N. Jefferson Ave., for $1.98 million in 2009. The U.S. Department of Commerce awarded the project a $2.75 million grant, available through the federal stimulus package and the Economic Development Administration to help with the renovations. The center is named for Plaster as the result of a seven-figure gift from the Robert W. Plaster Foundation.

“We expect the total project cost to be around $9 million,” Kunkel said.

The incubator, which initially will have offer 25,000 square feet available for lease, will occupy one-third of the building, Kunkel said. Lease rates haven’t yet been determined.

The board – working as Springfield Innovation Inc. – will manage the incubator, and members may help Kunkel as he begins recruiting potential startup tenants later this year.

Recruitment will focus on entrepreneurs and startup businesses in medical and health care industries, logistics and supply-chain management information technology such as software development and energy solutions, Kunkel said.  

In addition to the incubator and SBTDC, the building will house the Missouri Procurement Technical Assistance Center, which helps small businesses land government contracts, and Missouri Enterprise, an agency that works with manufacturers to help improve their processes and gain efficiencies.

With all of these agencies on-site, the center will be a one-stop shop for new, developing companies, said SBTDC Director Rayanna Anderson, adding that the SBTDC wants the incubator to create new entities that will create jobs.

“Our focus is economic development, and today, that really means job development,” she said.

Anderson and Kunkel agreed that incubators work best when entrepreneurs within them can work closely with each other and have easy access to services and support from organizations such as the SBTDC.

“Entrepreneurs like to work with and hear from other entrepreneurs,” Anderson said.

One of SBTDC’s major focuses will be helping the incubator’s clients find funding.

“A big part of startups is helping clients acquire capital,” Anderson said.

Neither Kunkel’s staff nor Anderson’s will expand because of the incubator.

“We’re trying to control costs as much as possible,” Kunkel said.

This is not Springfield’s first incubator, but it is the first of this magnitude. Drury University’s Students in Free Enterprise organization launched a smaller business incubator downtown in 2004, but it has since closed, Kunkel said.

Jim Anderson, president of the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce, and a member of the Springfield Innovation Inc. board, said the incubator is an example of public-private partnership and innovation.

He hopes the businesses housed in the incubator would be of the high-tech variety now operating at the nearby Jordan Valley Innovation Center.

“There’s some real opportunities for synergy there,” he said.[[In-content Ad]]

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