Growing Small Ideas Into Big Business

May 14, 2014

Abbeville County, SC (pop. 25,000) is a small, rural county without an interstate. What Abbeville County does have is a creative and innovative local economic developer. After being in economic development almost 20 years, I’ll take that over an interstate any day.

Abbeville County developer Steve Bowles’ philosophy is that “small ideas can grow into big companies.” If transportation access is a top site selection factor, and there are no interstates  in your county, you need to develop another strategy. Steve’s strategies include creating jobs (one at a time if needed); combating brain drain; supporting existing business; and fostering sustainable growth. The incubator project tackles every one. Existing businesses can use the incubator to ramp up a new product line. New companies locating in the business park can get started in the incubator during construction of their permanent facility. A small business can grow out of a garage into the incubator then on into the park.

Abbeville County is completing construction on the 22,000 SF, four bay, manufacturing incubator located in Lakelands Commerce Center. The location in the business park makes sense because of what the project is trying to inspire – start-up and expansions of manufacturing. The incubator will have a host of services available to support companies: legal, insurance, banking, finance, marketing, etc.

Like many incubators, Abbeville County set a three year graduation window. A unique and creative twist is that graduating companies are given a carrot to stay in the County. If a graduate immediately moves outside the County, they owe the County the difference between fair market rent and the subsidized rent they paid. If the company locates in-county, they do not repay the rent subsidy. Companies must stay in-county for three years for the subsidy waiver.

The approximate $1.45M project is funded jointly through a $1M EDA grant and $450,000 of local funds that come from utility tax credits and infrastructure funding. The land and site prep were included as part of the local match to EDA.

Steve Bowles shared his lessons learned. Number one is to be patient with EDA. Steve submitted the grant application in three funding cycles of six months each. That equated to an 18-month window for grant application. The federal government shutdown last fall slowed the project because the EDA grant reimburses a portion of cost and with no reimbursement coming, construction was stalled.

Another lesson learned is to get consensus and a strong commitment from County Council. The project could very well cross over to new board members.

Finally, be sure to have matching funds lined up and committed. It was hard to keep designated funds from being spent for other worthy county government needs.

Abbeville County hopes the incubator can be a model for other rural South Carolina communities. There are not many programs to support manufacturing start-ups in the state. Tech start-ups are sexier than manufacturing and are the focus of most incubators.

Even though the first tenant will not be able to move in until July, there are already verbal commitments for two of the four 5,000 SF bays. Not bad.

For more information, contact Steve Bowles. He’ll be glad to talk with you about the unique approach of Abbeville County.

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