Partners update progress on downtown Washington business incubator

Michael Bradwell
Observer Reporter

The partners of a planned small business incubator in Washington said Wednesday that funding requests for the project are moving forward, spurred by a matching challenge from one of the area’s most successful entrepreneurs.

The project, known as the Washington Area Business Incubator, was announced in September by Tori Haring-Smith, president of Washington & Jefferson College, and Tom Northrop, publisher of the Observer-Reporter.

During a discussion before about 100 members of the Washington County Chamber of Commerce at The George Washington hotel, the partners, along with Max Miller, director of W&J’s entrepreneurial studies program, outlined the progress of the project, which could be up and running in late 2018 or early 2019.

The incubator project has received $250,000 from Washington County’s Local Share Account, as well as support from the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation.

Haring-Smith told the group that Joe Hardy, founder of 84 Lumber Co., who also funded the launch of W&J’s entrepreneurial studies program, has offered $250,000 toward the project if the partnership can raise an equal amount. She said the college has applied to the state for an Redevelopment Capital Assistance Program grant that, if approved, would move the incubator to the construction phase.

“If all of these come through, we should be breaking ground soon,” said Haring-Smith, who said the state funding request has the support of both state Sen. Camera Bartolotta, R-Carroll Township, and state Rep. Brandon Neuman, D-North Strabane Township.

The total cost of the project is estimated at $2.5 million.

The Observer-Reporter has offered its former circulation building on South Main Street as well as its unused pressroom on Strawberry Way to the college rent-free for 10 years. The incubator would charge start-ups rent to take space in the building.

Haring-Smith and Miller, who prior to joining the college a year ago helped to launch incubators in Pittsburgh, stressed that the college wants the incubator to help local people launch small businesses or grow existing ones.

“We want it to be everyone’s incubator,” she said.

Miller added that students in his program “are a pipeline” of talent to provide support for start-ups in the incubator.

“Students can help and gain experience by helping” the small businesses, he said.

Miller also said questions from small businesses about the incubator could occur while the funding for the project is being sought.

Just before the trio spoke, a professional video produced by Fresh Media Group of Washington showed images of the city and brief interviews with those involved in the incubator project and city and county officials discussing its importance to downtown. The video is being used to market the project.

Mayor Scott Putnam, who spoke briefly before the panel was introduced, said the incubator is one of several projects occurring downtown that point to a renaissance in the business district, including new restaurants, the conversion of the Washington Trust Building into a mixed-use residential and commercial property and the presence of two distilleries and a winery as well as an upcoming microbrewery.

Northrop said the newspaper explored several possibilities for its unused buildings before partnering with W&J on the incubator.

He said he sees the project as contributing to Main Street’s return as a business center.

“Now Main Street is Route 19,” he said. “I’d like to see Main Street become Main Street again.”