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GROWING PAINS

by Jeff Sykes

Confused presentation gives Greensboro city council concerns prior to grant approval

jeff@yesweekly.com | @jeffreysykes

The City of Greensboro will pay the $76,000 salary for the program director of a business accelerator program this year, following a tough sell to several skeptical members of the city council.

The Greensboro Partnership’s Entrepreneur Connection program began in 2013 with a pilot program funded by the Piedmont Triad Partnership. The accelerator is a type of business incubator, where innovators are teamed with successful business people who help guide their ideas to reality.

The Greensboro Partnership approached the city council twice this summer seeking a $100,000 grant to help fund the program in its second year. The idea was pitched at a city council work session again last week. Several council members expressed concerns about budget items for food and travel, in addition to line items for technology and marketing expenses.

In the space of a week, those line items were absorbed by a larger program being run by Action Greensboro, so that when the request came before council Monday night, confusion reigned.

Despite the best efforts of Action Greensboro’s Cecelia Thompson to explain the new arrangement, it took quite some time to walk a few city council members through the new set up. In essence, Action Greensboro’s Collab initiative will absorb the accelerator program, offering several in-kind donations that eliminated the budget concerns council members had expressed.

Thompson launched in to an explanation of the rationale for both the Collab, a co-working space being developed at 229 N. Greene St., and Action Greensboro’s new oversight of the Entrepreneur Connection program. Action Greensboro has put a significant amount of money into the Collab space and attracted investment from corporate donors.

The plans fit into Opportunity Greensboro’s vision to retain more college graduates in the city and to create “a more robust pipeline between higher education and industry.”

“We want to make Greensboro hum for the long term for college students,” Thompson said. The Collab space will give early stage entrepreneurs and college students seeking experiential learning opportunities a place to work. Collab also will provide the Entrepreneur Connection program with office space, and a location to manage their programs and workshops.

All of this is geared toward attracting and retaining young talent and developing the next generation of entrepreneurs, Thompson said.

“We know that this is a great job creator for our community,” Thompson said. “It really came together to support Entrepreneur Connection through the upfit of the Collab.”

The building at 229 North Greene St. is owned by Elon University School of Law, which has agreed to lease it to Action Greensboro for $1 a year. The school has also donated a significant amount of furniture to the Collab project.

When the facility opens on Nov. 17, Entrepreneur Connection will move their offices from the Greensboro Partnership.

“We really think the accelerator is an important piece of the puzzle in terms of the ecosystem for entrepreneurship in Greensboro,” Thompson said. “This is a significant piece of really getting those folks on their feet.”

Dennis Stearns, of Stearns Financial Services Group, serves as the chair of the Entrepreneur Connection advisory committee, and continued the pitch with an explanation of the services and programs offered.

“It’s all about jobs and job growth in the future,” Stearns said. “Small businesses generate a very large percentage of new job growth. We have a program that intends to kick that to a higher level.”

Their Summer Triad Starup Lab had 20 new ideas come through, which resulted in eight companies and 10 new products and services being launched. The goal is to run that cycle twice a year.

Budget hawk Tony Wilkins, who represents council’s District 5, smiled when he announced to Mayor Nancy Vaughan that he would have several questions. Wilkins noted that this was the same program described at the previous work session, only with different people requesting the money.

City staff had presented the idea to council as a $200,000 project, with the city being asked to fund half. Wilkins noted that the new budget exhibits far exceeded $200,000.

“We never heard of it exceeding it until now,” Wilkins said. “Before we were told this is a $200,000 project and you ask us for $100,000.”

At-large councilmember Marikay Abuzuaiter noted the new proposal and project descriptions had not been included in the council’s meeting packet. The previous slideshow presented in August was included in their materials. She also noted that several questions asked at previous work sessions remained unanswered.

“That’s the reason for the confusion up here on the dias,” Abuzuaiter said. “You have to understand the bit of angst here that we were presented something in August, not all the questions got answered, and now this is being presented in a different light. I think all of us want to try and keep our college students here, but here we’ve taken away from that focus.”

Thompson, from Action Greensboro, apologized for not being at the work session. She redescribed the concept, explaining that perhaps the confusion stemmed from the many programs the Collab space would house.

“Collab is really a roof over many different programs in the community from experiential learning for higher education, in addition to the accelerator program,” she said. !

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