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  • Writer's pictureCameron Cochran

Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Heart of new Downtown Center

Posted April 13, 2018

By Brie Handgraaf, Wilson Daily Times

Flexible seating and open office spaces perfect for collaboration paired with entrepreneurial programs form the foundation for a new innovation hub slated for downtown Wilson.

“In most cases, these types of innovation hubs, at least in North Carolina, have been in metropolitan areas,” said Wilson City Manager Grant Goings. “We are, in some ways, a pioneer in offering this type of a facility in a community our size.”

The project was a result of Wilson’s inclusion in InnovateNC, an effort led by the Institute for Emerging Issues to spur entrepreneurship beyond the borders of Raleigh and Charlotte.

“Throughout the InnovateNC process, we visited other communities and many of them had an innovation hub or a co-working space, which seemed like a good opportunity for us,” said Paula Benson, executive director of Wilson 20/20 Community Vision. “Since that point, we’ve learned from other communities with similar facilities and shaped our ideas as we determined what would best fit Wilson.”

A $1.1 million grant from the Golden Leaf Foundation will be used in conjunction with $1.6 million from the city to renovate the first two floors of the business development center at 121 Nash St. W. Goings said the building will be transferred from the county to the city and construction likely will get underway in late fall.

The renderings prepared by Maurer Architecture include eliminating the current structured layout, opening up the bulk of the second floor to create a two-story workspace with added windows, glass-walled conference spaces and areas for entrepreneurs to work individually or collaborate with others. Construction is expected to take about a year.

Barton College Provost Gary Daynes said like co-working spaces in other cities, the Wilson Innovation Hub will combine flexible, affordable space with programs geared toward entrepreneurs.

“The special sauce here is our ability to have co-working space that is attractive to our community and scale, but also programming that works for our region,” Daynes said. “We want to be attractive to someone from the Triangle, but also someone from Wilson who has an idea for a new business and wants to kick it around with others, get some legal advice and network with like-minded folks.

“These co-working spaces develop informal networks where ideas for new businesses are born and that makes for a vibrant environment.”

In metropolitan areas, co-working often appeals largely to millennials, but officials recognized the audience for the Wilson Innovation Hub will be a broader demographic.

“We have found and national statistics out there say the majority of millennials have something going on the side and they have aspirations to make it into a business given the right guidance, location, peer support and programming,” Goings said. “The innovation hub offers a lot of potential to help diversify our economy.”

The fourth floor of the building will continue to house the Upper Coastal Plains Council of Governments, but the roughly 10,000-square-foot third floor is open for future development. Officials said they’re hopeful a private partner will jump on board to develop a makerspace with equipment entrepreneurs can share or some other similar project.

“The hub is part of a strategic plan that came out of Innovate Wilson and aims, over time, to develop an innovation zone,” Daynes said. “In Greensboro, there is a co-working space with a makerspace down the road. We’re hoping the innovation hub is a hub for future activities and extensions.”

In metropolitan areas, co-working spaces and makerspaces usually are private ventures. Goings said having public investment lead the effort follows a tradition in Wilson with officials leading the charge to help economic development, including incentives for tobacco warehouses and infrastructure investments to lure manufacturing companies.

“I think this council’s investment in public broadband and their investment in the innovation hub is laying the foundation for what we hope will be future development and expansion of the innovation economy in Wilson,” Goings said. “The Wilson City Council thinks it is important to continue to lead the way for our community’s success.”

The city’s portion will be allocated from the fund balance with Wilson committed to operating the innovation hub for at least three years. Income from rent will help offset operating expenses, but the hope is a director will be hired to lead and grow the Wilson Innovation Hub.

“By being that catalyst and making this investment, we’ll bring the innovation hub to Wilson probably a decade before it would naturally occur,” Goings said. “I believe this council sees this investment in a bigger picture that is consistent with the investment in community broadband and downtown redevelopment. We’re working to elevate the innovation economy of our community.”

To support the grant application, 12 letters were submitted to Golden Leaf from Wilson entities such as Wilson Medical Center and Barton College, but also from startups and leaders of co-working spaces across the state.

“The innovation hub represents a strong effort by Wilson to attract and retain the high level of talent that its current and future employers will demand,” Golden Leaf President Dan Gerlach said in a press release. “We are pleased to support a creative strategy well supported by the public and private sectors.”

Goings said the innovation hub is one part of a comprehensive strategy to add amenities to attract younger residents to Wilson.

“Wilson 20/20 is always looking for opportunities that will promote Wilson as a destination to live and to work,” Benson said. “The innovation hub provides a space that supports an innovation economy and expanded educational opportunities, and ultimately, that will support our efforts to attract and retain the talent we want in Wilson.”

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