W&J, O-R launch plans for downtown small-business incubator

Michael Bradwell
Observer Reporter

A small-business incubator could be in operation in the heart of downtown Washington two years from now, according to plans announced Friday by Washington & Jefferson College and the Observer-Reporter.

During a brief presentation before about 20 county and city officials and area state legislators, W&J President Tori Haring-Smith and O-R Publisher Tom Northrop described a mixed-use incubator in which the newspaper will provide its former circulation building on South Main Street as well as its unused pressroom on Strawberry Way to the college rent-free.

Haring-Smith, who said the cost of converting the buildings is estimated at $2.5 million, said the college already is talking with foundations as it prepares to raise funds for the project, which could be open by fall of 2018.

She stressed the incubator would be available for anyone who needs space for a start-up business.

“We’re looking to open this up to the entire county,” she said. “We want to plant the seeds here for revitalizing downtown Washington.”

According to Haring-Smith, the college used a Benedum Foundation grant in 2013 to hire Greenwood Consulting Group, whose founder Jim Greenwood conducted more than 80 incubator studies around the country.

A local survey conducted by Greenwood estimated there were 55 potential tenants and clients who could use the incubator – 18 small and start-up businesses interested in becoming tenants and another 37 respondents interested in receiving services at an incubator, such as use of a conference room or copying services.

Haring-Smith explained the college spent the interim years trying to find a location in town that could best serve tenants.

“We’ve been all through downtown looking for the right fit,” she said, something that was elusive until the newspaper’s vacant space was considered.

That suggestion came from Tripp Kline, chairman of the Whiskey Rebellion Festival and an entrepreneur in his own right, who was enlisted by the college to help it in its search.

The newspaper consolidated its circulation department in its main building at 122 South Main St. a few years ago and, about the same time, outsourced its printing operations to Wheeling, W.Va., leaving it with excess space on South Main Street.

Northrop said the newspaper began talking with W&J in January about the possibility of a cooperative agreement.

“Offering that space for free didn’t even take a couple of seconds” to decide, he said. “It’s the most exciting thing to come across my desk in a long time.”

He said the newspaper would remove the unused printing press before construction begins.

In addition to the newspaper’s provision of free rent for its unused space, Haring-Smith said the location on Main Street is in a high-traffic area across from the Main Street Farmers Market community pavilion; provides a storefront on Main Street that includes an existing courtyard for tenant interaction and events; and metered parking on the street and under the covered pavilion across the street.

Julie Throckmorton, foundations and corporate relations officer at W&J, said the college needs to raise 80 percent of the funding before it begins construction. She noted tenants will pay “near-market” rents so the incubator won’t unfairly compete with other commercial space downtown.

While showing architect’s renderings of the converted space, Kline noted the incubator will include start-up retail space, as well as offices for new or existing small business, but stressed tenants won’t be able to stay there permanently. As owners grow their businesses, they’ll be expected to move out and find conventional office space either downtown or elsewhere.

“We’re looking at this as a feeder to get these businesses up and running and then expand within the county,” Kline said.