Chambers of commerce across Alabama are providing small business members ever more valuable resources, including training, counseling, networking and business incubation centers to help new enterprises get off the ground.
Jeremy Arthur, president and chief executive officer of the Alabama Association of Chambers of Commerce, says such efforts are important for stimulating the economy in general. “Small business is the backbone of the economy in this state, ” he says. “Small businesses provide the most jobs and economic impact. They are of vital importance.”
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce defines a small business as one that employs 100 or fewer workers, but Arthur points out that the majority of small businesses in the state employ 10 or less. That means they often have a critical need for their local chamber’s pooled business resources, especially when they are getting started or moving to a new level.
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Incubators are particularly desirable to start-ups and help spur the genesis and ensure the survival of new companies. “They offer a foundation and platform for a good beginning, not only because of the office space but also the collaborative environment, brain talent, labor pool and shared resources under one roof, ” Arthur says.
While Birmingham’s Innovation Depot has performed as a successful incubator for many years, a number of Alabama’s chambers of commerce, from small to large, are now creating their own incubators and adding them to their mix of member services.
Ed Collari, president and chief executive officer of the Alexander City Chamber of Commerce, has great hopes for the emerging Lake Martin Innovation Center his chamber has planned. “My predecessor worked on getting this center off the ground, and I feel privileged to help make it a reality, ” he says. “We have so much business talent in this area to bring together for collaboration, from our full-time residents to metro-area executives who own a lake house here.”
The center will provide low-cost office space to start-ups and will allow other business leaders to access high-speed internet, teleconferencing and other business services through a center membership. “We want to provide high-tech and other resources members might not otherwise have access to because we aren’t a major metropolitan area, ” Collari says.
The chamber in September signed a 10-year lease for the old Aliant Bank processing center now owned by USAmeriBank. The 17, 000-square-foot facility will be renovated and upgraded in three phases to house both the chamber and the new innovation center. “We visited a number of incubators across the state to see what was working for them, and then looked closely at our own area to see what the real needs here are because of our unique market, ” says Collari, who previously served as the assistant general manager and marketing manager for Bayer Properties at The Summit.
Collari and other chamber leaders believe the center will also help spur entrepreneurship among area youth. The chamber already features a year-long Young Entrepreneurs Academy, which mentors students and gives them the opportunity to have their business ideas evaluated and be considered for funding. “The innovation center will be yet another way we can offer young people an incentive to stay in the area by providing them additional business opportunities, ” Collari says.
The Wetumpka Area Chamber of Commerce recently cut the ribbon on its new Wetumpka Business and Innovation Center, located in the historic downtown area. The chamber is buying the city block associated with the 1910 Bank of Wetumpka building. Funding for the multi-year, $1.5-million redevelopment effort — including the new chamber offices, visitor’s center and business incubator — is coming from 39 investors. “We are a small town with a big attitude. We want to preserve the historic nature of the downtown to help maintain the beauty and quality of life in our area, ” says Gerry Purcell, executive director of the chamber.
The innovation center will provide a venue for training, networking events, breakfasts, business meetings, brainstorming and accessing Wi-Fi, as well as a copying and mailing center. “We believe the chamber’s efforts are serving as a catalyst for downtown redevelopment in general, ” Purcell says.
Bill Sisson, president and CEO of the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce and incoming chairman of the Alabama Association of Chambers of Commerce, believes chambers are essential in helping grow business and that chambers are the voice of small, medium and big businesses. “Big companies start small, and small companies need support and resources as they grow, ” he says.
Even in a metropolitan area such as Mobile, most chamber members are classified as “small” because they employ 100 or fewer employees. “Ninety-four percent of our 2, 000 chamber members are small businesses, ” Sisson points out.
Mobile’s chamber is partnering with the city and county of Mobile, the University of South Alabama and other business leaders to create a regional business incubator called the Innovation PortAL in downtown Mobile. The hope is to build on Southwest Alabama’s manufacturing base by bringing together local industry and area entrepreneurs, says Darrell Randle, vice president of Small Business Development of Mobile’s chamber.
The U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration awarded the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce Foundation a $2.9 million grant to renovate a St. Louis Street facility for the incubator. Local foundations, industry, the city of Mobile, Mobile County and the University of South Alabama committed to $1.9 million in matching funds. “We believe the PortAL is a wonderful opportunity for the generation and expansion of small businesses in our area, ” Randle says.
But innovation centers, while significant to small business growth, are not the only important resource the state’s chambers offer to members. Chambers, no matter what their size, are designed to foster business development through a wide variety of resources, including inexpensive or free training, one-on-one counseling, networking, referrals and more. “Our small business development department focuses on the three areas of training, awards and recognition, ” Randle says.
Workshops and seminars include developing financial, management, sales, marketing and internet-security skills. Mobile’s small business members are recognized on a monthly and yearly basis through awards, which are then publicized, Randle says. The chamber’s Eagle Awards provide recognition to small minority business members.
“Many times the great things a small business is doing are not well known in the community, so it’s important to recognize the contributions of our small business members and bring deserved attention to them. That helps boost their business, ” he says.
Kathy Hagood and Julie Lowry are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Hagood is based in Homewood and Lowry in Montgomery.
Text By KATHY HAGOOD // photo by julie lowry