Incubator takes care of business, heads for a May opening

Rick Shrum

Two locations and seven years later, the incubator is about to be born.

An early May opening is planned for ignite, the erstwhile Greater Washington Area Business Incubator. Conversion of a former O’Reilly’s Auto Parts store is almost complete at 57 E. Chestnut St. in Washington, where “they’re putting final touches on the building,” said Max Miller, director of the project.

“We’re getting ready to turn up the marketing engine and get the word out,” he said.

This “baby” no longer goes by the acronym WABI, but by its newly minted formal name – ignite – which is emblazoned on signage out front. It has a website,, and a recently hired administrator who will start work Monday.

But, as yet, ignite has no tenants.

The incubator concept is designed to attract, develop and retain small businesses. Miller said the Washington location will be for “mixed uses, in the sense that we’re not targeting any particular types of businesses.”

A major objective is to boost not only downtown Washington, but the region.

“This project can be a catalyst for growth in Washington County,” Miller said. “Washington is excited about it, but people in the Mon Valley and Canonsburg are equally excited.”

About $1.3 million was raised for the incubator, the approximate cost of the project. The result, ultimately, is 4,000 square feet of operating space in the middle of the county seat, where parking spaces are plentiful. That wasn’t the earlier scenario.

An incubator in Washington was initially discussed in 2014, then acted upon in September 2016 via 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.

Tom Northrop, retired publisher of Observer Publishing Co., owner and operator of the O-R, said in an interview last fall that “one of the deals (after the sale) was that the circulation department be brought up to code.”

Northrop, now a WABI advisory board member, 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 and 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. Exterior work began last summer, amid the pandemic.

“We’ve had some fits and starts, but I view this as a marathon, not a sprint,” said Miller, who also is director of the Department of Entrepreneurial Studies at W&J. He has been at the school, and connected to the incubator, for four years.

The interior is tastefully adorned with an accent on comfort. Features include three fixed offices with doors; about 20 working spaces; co-working spaces; lounge space; WiFi; and a 15-seat conference room that community groups can use.

There are leasing and flexible membership opportunities, according to the website. Monthly lessees will have 24-hour access. Flexible memberships, however, cannot be long term.

“We’ve designed all furniture to be flexed,” Miller said. “We can shift furniture around to accommodate a popup for different local vendors. For retail, we envision more of a popup event strategy.”

After all of the fits and starts, and the intrusion of a pandemic, Miller said, “We’re extremely pleased.

“We have a fantastic advisory board, a fantastic construction management team, and fantastic support from the city and state and W&J. A convergence of the right stakeholders at the right time got us to the finish line.

“The physical space is great. Now we’re looking to fill it up.”