Starting a business can be a tough proposition, but the Vilas County Economic Development Corporation is now offering budding entrepreneurs, as well as businesses from other areas who are thinking of expanding here, a service that can help make things a little easier.
The Vilas County Business Incubator celebrated its grand opening in early August, and the Eagle River community has heartily embraced the facility. In fact, according to Ken Stubbe, executive director of the
VCEDC, “People are crazily enthusiastic.”
The incubator-a facility that provides office space at a low cost, as well as other business services, to budding entrepreneurs-has been a long time coming. The idea for it, according to Barry McLeane, treasurer and project manager, originated several years ago. A feasibility study revealed that Eagle River could support a business/arts incubator. Unfortunately, a suitable location couldn’t be found, so the project was put on hold. But the idea never quite went away; discussions about an incubator, McLeane recalls, kept coming up at EDC board meetings.
Everything changed when the building at 413 West Pine Street, long abandoned, became available. Stubbe describes the structure as being “in really tough shape.” So tough, in fact, that the building’s owner let VCEDC lease it for “close to free,” as Stubbe puts it.
Both Stubbe and McLeane are amazed at how the incubator became a community project. An army of volunteers-Stubbe estimates about 50-helped whip the building into shape, and the landscaping, windows, paint and entryway were all donated. About six months after gaining the lease for the building, the incubator was ready for tenants.
Residents quickly noticed the activity at the once-vacant building, and after WJFW TV-12 broadcast an initial report about the incubator in July, their curiosity intensified. “The next three weeks, it was nonstop people coming in to see what it was about,” McLeane recalls, adding that the community’s reception toward the facility has been “more than we could ever hope for.”
The idea behind a business incubator, Stubbe explains, is to give a leg up to entrepreneurs who have the potential to build a solid business but who haven’t been around long enough to acquire the office space and equipment they need or to build up a market. The facility has a classroom and meeting area that’s equipped for teleconferencing and even has plenty of room to expand.
Prospective tenants must meet specific criteria to be considered for office space. “We don’t want someone who just wants a cheap office,” Stubbe says.
A business plan is required of clients, and the VCEDC will help business owners write plans. Entrepreneurs looking to land space in the incubator must also demonstrate evidence that their business will actually develop a market and eventually hire people. Finally, “They can only stay at most for two years,” Stubbe says. After that, the business owners “graduate” and must either buy or lease a building or rent office space elsewhere.
At this writing, there are two clients in the building. Alpha Neonx Sign & Lighting, a Wauwatosa-based company that’s exploring the possibility of expanding to this area, occupies one office. Another office holds Chris Gaffron’s business, Stitch It, a custom embroidery shop. Gaffron, who has worked in this field since 2004, was once a partner in another custom embroidery business. The partnership ended and Gaffron had to start over. She opened her business in early September and has been busy ever since.
On this particular day, she’s hard at work filling an order. With the embroidery machine humming away in the background, Gaffron explains that the equipment already in her shop is paid for, and she intends to purchase more. While she’s not ready to hire help now, she anticipates that she’ll be hiring in the future.
The vision for growing business in Vilas County doesn’t end at the walls of the business incubator in Eagle River.
“I’d like to take other vacant buildings,” says Stubbe, “and see if they can be part of this program.” He also envisions opening incubators at some point in Manitowish Waters and Boulder Junction.
In the meantime, the Vilas County Business Incubator continues to draw a lot of attention. The facility, which can accommodate up to seven enterprises, currently has offices ready to go for three more businesses. Efforts to attract more tenants are ongoing, with a marketing campaign in the works that utilizes social media and newspapers to spread the word about the services now available to entrepreneurs. People regularly walk in, Stubbe says, and inquire about available space in the building. In its short time in existence, the Vilas County Business Incubator still generates a lot of buzz, and that suits the people at the Vilas County Economic Development Corporation just fine.
“This is a place that’s all about possibilities,” McLeane says, “where people can come and talk to us about what they want to do and realize their potential.”
For more information, log on to vilascountyedc.org.