AMY MILLER/TIMES NEWS Carbon County business leaders listen to John Augustine, director of the Innovation Center of Wilkes-Barre, center; during a recent tour to the business incubator. From left, are, Mark Sverchek, Carbon County Chamber of Commerce and Carbon County Economic Development Corporation; Rich More, president of the Penn Kidder Area Council; Augustine; Joe Bennett, owner of Bennett dealership; and Frank Potoczak, owner of Castle Grill.
Carbon County business leaders and entrepreneurs recently traveled to Hazleton and Wilkes-Barre to learn about business incubators.
According to the Greater Hazleton Business Innovation Center, "incubators nurture young firms, helping them to survive and grow during the startups period when they are the most vulnerable. Incubator programs provide hands-on management assistance, access to financing and orchestrated exposure to critical business or technical support services. These programs also offer entrepreneurial firms flexible lease space, shared office services and access to office equipment."
Businesses are allowed to flourish in the incubators for three years before relocating to a more permanent location.
Dawn Ferrante, executive director for the Carbon County Economic Development Corporation, explained that incubators can be a successful venture for increasing businesses in the area.
She noted that the mission of the trip was to allow business leaders and organizations, such as the Chamber of Commerce, Industrial Development Authority, and Economic Development Corporation, the chance to see how this could help grow business in Carbon County.
The first stop was to the Greater Hazleton Business Innovation Center, Can-Be.
Jack St. Pierre, executive director for the center, provided the group with a tour of the facility, which is a former warehouse that was converted into small office spaces.
St. Pierre explained that an incubator offers office space that is variable in size, from 85 square feet to a few hundred square feet.
He noted that incubators help startups businesses because statistics show that there is an 87 percent failure rate of new businesses who try to start up without help; while two-thirds of the businesses who utilize incubators don't fail.
Of the 19 companies that started at Can-Be since 2006, only three never launched their business after the three-year incubator period.
Types of businesses that can utilize incubators are typically technologically driven, but other ventures are accepted at Can-Be, including a yoga studio, nurse training school and recording studio.
St. Pierre explained that the project came to fruition through grants and support from Penn State University, Hazleton campus; Can-Do and Luzerne County.
At the second business incubator, the Innovation Center of Wilkes-Barre, John Augustine III, director of the center, provided a more technologically-driven incubator system.
Located in the center of downtown Wilkes-Barre, the Innovation Center utilizes a 60,000-square-foot store that includes Wilkes University and King's College's bookstore and a Barnes & Noble bookstore on the first two floors. The third and fourth floors are then utilized by new businesses, such as Optimo Information Technology, Pepperjam, attorney Joseph P. Comerota and Bright Solutions.
Augustine explained that the building, which was completed in 2004, has a 99 percent occupancy rate and is part of the Keystone Innovation Zone Tax Credit program, which helps new businesses sell their Pennsylvania tax credits.
He also told about some businesses success stories through the incubator, including Pepperjam, which began in 1999 as a specialty gourmet shop selling pepper jelly. The company grew and expanded into a publisher, retailer and agency for digital media services and was later purchased by GSI Media. It now has branches in New York City and King of Prussia, in addition to Wilkes-Barre.
The tour of the building showed that the incubator provided recent graduates with a way to find business opportunities and establish themselves in the workforce.
Following the event, Ferrante spoke with the participants about building an incubator in Carbon County.
"The key is to work together," she said, adding that this could be a good venture for the county, if it is done correctly.
Ferrante said the goal isn't to make a massive incubator, but rather to start small.
She said that she has asked an individual in the county if they would be willing to donate a building that is centrally located within the county. She would then work to obtain grants to redevelop and market the incubator as a one-stop-shop for new business ventures.