Incubator being nurtured for February opening

Rick Shrum

That long-awaited incubator has a February due date.

Exterior construction of the Greater Washington Area Business Incubator has advanced to the point that a virtual groundbreaking is anticipated over the next two months. The facility sits at 57 E. Chestnut St. in Washington, in a former O’Reilly’s Auto Parts store.

“We feel great that we have momentum and are hopeful that same energy that has existed around this concept continues,” said Max Miller, director of the project and director of the Department of Entrepreneurial Studies at Washington & Jefferson College.

About $1.3 million, according to Miller, has been raised for the incubator, which could provide a boost not only for downtown Washington, but the region. The project, however, has been beset by delays – before and after the pandemic arrived.

The building, he said, has a little less than 4,000 square feet of space, more room and convenience than the intended original venue. Exterior work began during the summer. Interior modifications, however, have yet to begin.

“We need to have HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning), tech stuff, interior walls,” said Tripp Kline, a WABI advisory board member and a local entrepreneur. “The building itself was a pretty good envelope.”

The incubator concept – designed to attract, develop and retain small businesses – was hatched in September 2016 through a partnership among Washington & Jefferson College, the Observer-Reporter and the city of Washington.

The plan was to renovate and use the newspaper’s former circulation building and press room on South Main Street rent-free for 10 years. But that began to change in the fall of 2018 after the Northrop family sold the O-R to Ogden Newspapers.

“One of the deals, after we sold to Ogden, was that the circulation department be brought up to code,” said Tom Northrop, retired publisher of Observer Publishing Co., former parent of the O-R. He also is a WABI advisory board member, and said the panel ultimately realized “it was just going to cost too much to bring the building up to speed.”

W&J owned the O’Reilly property, meaning the college would not have to negotiate a lease agreement after the initial 10 years of operation. The advisory board decided in late December 2019 to relocate the project to the former auto parts site, which is near the college.

Northrop likes the location. “There’s more space (than the old O-R location) and there are no parking issues. This has taken longer than anyone had hoped, but we’re seeing progress. People want to see something for their money, and this location will be beneficial.”

The incubator does not have a name and, as of now, has no tenants. Miller said merchants and would-be merchants have expressed interest since the project was announced, and that he and the board “are gearing up for a marketing effort, gearing up branding initiatives.”

“In the larger scheme of things, this is a project that can be a catalyst for a lot of people.”

Kline believes that the project has high-end potential.

“If you look for a silver lining on the pandemic and stay-at-home recommendations, it has given entrepreneurs time to think, time to realize if I want to open a business, it’s now or never. I think we’re going to see a really pent-up desire and demand for people to depend on themselves rather than an employer.

“We are expecting that as things break loose, we will get a lot of interest.”