Startups in Vidalia will soon have a new place to go to develop their ideas and launch new businesses. In April, community leaders celebrated the groundbreaking for their Center for Rural Entrepreneurship. The $5 million project is the result of work done by the local chamber and development authority, the city of Vidalia, Georgia Power, and others.
We recently spoke with Michele Johnson, President of the Greater Vidalia® Chamber, and Executive Director of the Toombs County Development Authority and Ann Owens, Director of Community Development for both the Greater Vidalia® Chamber and the Toombs County Development Authority.
Thanks for talking with us! So, how did this project begin?
Michele: We got started on this in 2019. We went over to Alabama to benchmark at a youth entrepreneur program, and we met in a facility that was the inspiration for our project in Alexander City, Alabama. It was a former bank building that had been donated to the Chamber there. They used a portion of that space as a business incubator. And of course, their Chamber offices were there. It was a very unique atmosphere, edgy but welcoming with lots of activity. It really started our wheels turning about how we could bring that idea back to our community. We shared some of that information and inspiration with Mickey Daniell, the Georgia Power Community Development manager for our region. And as our partner, he said, "Well, why don't we pursue it? Let us help you." Georgia Power provided support to get the ball rolling with some community meetings and planning, and to see how receptive our community would be to the idea.
That's so great - and how did the community respond?
Michele: Based on the feedback from those meetings, we decided as a community that we wanted to pursue the project. At that point, we engaged the folks over at Georgia Southern University to help us conduct a feasibility study and an economic impact analysis. All of that went very well. Then we started looking at potential funding mechanisms. Obviously, COVID slowed everything down. But, it did bring a lot of new opportunities, and we looked at funding through multiple avenues that became available because of COVID. As bad as that was, one thing it did was shine a light on how important businesses are to a community. When the closures happened, there was a renewed focus on entrepreneurs, small businesses, and how to help them be more resilient. So we were able to use some of those opportunities to ultimately secure funding to carry out the project.
So, fast-forwarding to the recent groundbreaking of the center...
Ann: Yes, we did the groundbreaking in April. We were able to get the funding from the Rural Downtown Redevelopment Grant that the state set aside. We got a little over $4 million from that fund. And we were able to get $750,000 in OneGeorgia funding. And then locally, we had the Greater Vidalia® Chamber, the Toombs County Development Authority, and the City of Vidalia contribute to the local match.
Michele: So the project was fully funded - we are so excited about that. Something unique about this project - the site was formerly an Econo Inn establishment, an older motel. It was considered a blight on the community. So while we were working on developing the Center facility plan, the City of Vidalia was busy purchasing that site, demoing that structure, and we were able to partner with them to revitalize a block in the downtown area. We feel like it is really going to enhance what's going on in the downtown Vidalia community.
The Greater Vidalia® Center for Rural Entrepreneurship is projected to open next summer, in 2024. How are you preparing for making the space function and succeed?
Michele: We're still developing all of that, customizing the plans to our community's needs. Aside from the facility development itself, Georgia Power came up with the CREATE Program, with the goal of cultivating rural economies. We were fortunate enough to be one of the six communities in the state that was selected for that inaugural cohort. We have been working through that process and using some of the best practices and things that we've learned in that program to be the platform for the programming once the building is up and running.
Ann: Georgia Power has been a huge part of all of these efforts through several different avenues that all complement each other. Georgia Power's been a great resource for us.
Michele: Yes, and we have also partnered with their Workforce Development team and have a separate Workforce Development strategy. Officially, it's the Greater Vidalia® Workforce Development Strategy. And again, we hit the ground running with that after COVID, because we were getting so many calls from local employers - and continue to - about talent, how to retain it, and what they need to do to be premier employers. And again, Georgia Power was our partner on that effort. They came to the table with some seed money, and then five of our biggest employers also contributed to that effort. We worked with the Carl Vinson Institute of Government to develop that program.
That's all so exciting for your community, and a great example of partnerships. What do you hope to see once the Center is open?
Michele: Obviously, we had this facility, and from the very beginning, we wanted it to be our community center. We wanted local entrepreneurs to make it what they need it to be. Although we're going to come up with some basic programming, we are really trying to engage that community to see what rises to the surface. We're going to move Chamber and Development Authority offices into that building. We want entrepreneurs to have access to our team and services, which is why we invited other businesses as tenants, including a technology provider.
We're going to have offices for resource providers, as well. There'll be room for the SBDC folks, or the state - really anybody that's working with the community will have a space where they can meet and collaborate. And we hope the local entrepreneurial community can become familiar with them and their services when they're here. We're also going to have incubator space for several businesses to work with through an entire process, and ultimately, graduate them out of our program and into the downtowns or other areas of our community.
But more than anything, we're just trying to provide an atmosphere and a spirit of collaboration to get people talking to each other, playing off each other's strengths and weaknesses, and finding ways to make their dreams come true.
Ann: My husband and I are entrepreneurs ourselves, and we have started several businesses and we have buildings downtown, so we know firsthand what some of the struggles are. And one of our challenges with the CREATE Grant was to build a working plan for the grant money. One of the aspects of that is something that we just started a couple weeks ago called an Entrepreneurial Mixer, and we were very pleased with the first one. We really want the people in this community to understand that this is a center for them. It is not for us, by any means. It is to create an entrepreneurial ecosystem within this building, so that you not only just come and sit around, and drink coffee, and have a laptop, and look cool - you also have an opportunity to meet with mentors, with bankers, with investors, even digging deep down and finding property owners who are willing to give some incentives for businesses to come to their buildings. It's meant to bring all these players together.
Can you tell us about the partnership with Georgia Southern?
Ann: We are hoping to collaborate with Georgia Southern. They have a grant to start the GENIE Program. For example, if they've got somebody from the Department of Agriculture doing a meeting at Georgia Southern about commercial foods, everybody within the GENIE Network can sit and join in on that class. So, we've got people over here that won't have to drive to Statesboro for that experience. I believe it's a network right now of either four or five. And, that's kind of a big deal. When you're a small business owner or an entrepreneur, your time is very precious and limited, and you can't really leave your business to go do things like this. So, for us to have something local is really important. I think it's going to change the face of businesses and our downtown as a whole.
It's amazing to think how in five, ten years all of this can change the dynamic of your community, and open up so many opportunities.
Ann: Yeah, I really think it will. We feel very positive about it. We're a rural area, so there's a lot of people that don't understand the goal, so our next step is to really focus on marketing. Hosting the Entrepreneur mixer that we did a few weeks ago was the first step. The response was fantastic, and I think it gave people the confidence to know that what we are planning is something that is needed. It can be confusing when you're starting a new business. There are so many things to think about, and a lot of those things don't hit you until right before you're about to open your doors. And like all communities, you get really sad and disappointed when you see businesses that don't make it because they have a passion for what they want to do, but they don't have the knowledge as far as marketing, or budgeting, or finances, those aspects. And you know that if they just had that one thing, they could have done so much better. This is trying to identify the person as a whole, and their needs as a whole, and trying to check all those boxes to give them the best chance of success as possible.