BELLEVILLE — A group of regional leaders is showing sincere interest in a project to turn the historic Turner Hall building into an accelerator for small businesses, and specifics are likely to evolve over the next few months as resources, including money and participation, are determined.
Kurt Artinger, who is remodeling the newly acquired landmark building at 15 N. First St. to accommodate both his own company and space for startup companies, played host to a July roundtable meeting attended by a number of people in the banking and business community, to show them the possibilities that exist. He’s hoping to turn the operation into an accelerator that will help businesses become established and eventually locate in downtown Belleville.
Artinger has invested some $1 million into the building. The first floor has been drastically overhauled for his business, Replacement Services LLC. Work is now underway on 6,000 square feet on the second floor that will be devoted to “co-working space” and accelerator program space.
Artinger grew up in Belleville and worked for his grandfather’s jewelry business as a young man. He said he watched as a lot of people he knew left town.
“I had always believed that for Belleville to be successful we have to have a lot of people living here and working here. It was more of an exodus,” he said.
Artinger started Replacement Services LLC 12 years ago, from scratch, and made it into a success despite not having early mentors.
“It was a great journey and I love it. I love every day coming to work. And being able to see the energy that we have here. So, how do we put that same energy and entrepreneurial spirit into this accelerator and co-working space?
“My goal, I want to get this started. I want to be a mentor but I’ve got a business to run so I can’t run the accelerator space. But I can certainly be a mentor and spent time and energy and passion to creating the right pieces of the puzzle for those who can take this on and champion it.”
Artinger said he would like to see an onsite manager who can connector mentors and entrepreneurs and have an arrangement where program graduates have to lease space in downtown for some period of time. He’s hoping to get things up and running by spring 2015.
“Ten businesses a year, for five years — it changes the landscape,” he said. “We can truly change how downtown is perceived. My goal is to make it a little techie, a little innovative, a little creative, a little artsy, whatever.”
Artinger figures it would take around $230,000 annually to fund the program, including $7,500 to $10,000 grant money for entrepreneurs accepted into the program.
He called the meeting in hopes of getting the input that he says is needed to make sure the project succeeds.
One by one, many of those present weighed in on the possibilities, with some suggesting that the building is right for technology, manufacturing or both. Some even suggested a more regional approach where various accelerator programs contribute to a joint network.
Regardless, two things are needed for such a program to thrive, said Rick Duree.
“It’s all about the collision of creativity and capital, but if you lack in either of those areas, it will not work,” he said.
Duree has for the last four years been working to establish startups through Lindenwood University and the Duree Center for Entrepreneurship. He said he welcomed the chance to offer input on Artinger’s project because starting an accelerator program can be overwhelming.
He clarified the difference between an accelerator and an incubator. An incubator is essentially “co-working space” where rent is cheap and there are facilities shared among multiple businesses.
An accelerator, he said, “is usually an incubator space that you don’t pay to be in. You’re adopted in by having a great pitch, get to stay X amount of time and get access to programming (such as speakers, mentors and pitch competitions).”
And winning startups should be guaranteed financial backing, he said.
“Having a pot of money that says you will win if you’re great means something to people,” Duree said.
Duree said universities should be enlisted to get behind the concept, since they’ll be referring students and potentially offer money or classroom space. Nonprofits should be approached, too, because they will have to host events in support, provide mentors or be among investors.
The city and its businesses will also have to play a part, Duree said, even to the point of co-opting their brand to make themselves known as a haven for entrepreneurs.
“If you can do it, if you can pull it together, this can be a great place,” he said of 90-year-old Turner Hall and its surroundings. “I was driving down here in the (downtown) circle. It feels great. This place is awesome. Great old buildings and culture. You can use that to your advantage.”
He called Artinger a “champion” for wanting to start the program.
Input at the meeting fell into a few basic categories, with much of the focus on how to finance the program, who to target and whose help to enlist.
Patrick McKeehan, executive director with the Illinois Metro East Small Business Development Center at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, noted that the recent, first-time business plan competition sponsored by the university attracted a number of manufacturing prospects.
“Seven of the 15 finalists were manufacturers. We have a long tradition and a strong inclination to still make things in this region,” McKeehan said.
Chris LeBeau, of Gateway Venture Mentoring Service, a regional, nonprofit entrepreneur support organization, said he wouldn’t be surprised if far more startup manufacturers aren’t just waiting to jump into the fray.
“We are really beginning to see the beginning of a ‘maker movement’ across the country. Not taking a risk in this economy is being risky in itself,” LeBeau said. “If you have a strength in manufacturing, there’s a real appetite for real, high quality manufactured, customized goods.”
Artinger said his building would be perfect for the early stage of a manufacturing business, which could work on things like business plans and costs before going on to another location for more advanced manufacturing.
Terry Beach, economic development director for St. Clair County, said he fields enough inquiries each month that he doubts there would be any problem filling Artinger’s space.
“I think the time is right. Metro East is 25 percent of the region’s population and growing,” Beach said.
John Lengerman, executive director of the Greater Belleville Chamber of Commerce, said his office could play a lead role in helping get things started.
Ellen Krohne, executive director of Leadership Council Southwestern Illinois, agreed that the project should be approached regionally, possibly in collaboration with places like American’s Central Port in Granite City, which has incubator space. Manufacturing-related technology and logistics businesses are strong contenders, she feels.
Artinger said fiber optic lines are being run to his building, which will accommodate high-technology startups.
Edie Koch, the southwest regional manager for the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, was among the meeting invitees. She said the department recently released a five-year Economic Development Plan, and two of its seven initiatives deal with entrepreneurship and innovation.
“I think the timing of what you’re doing from the state’s standpoint is just perfect. We’re very interested in supporting entrepreneurship. One of our focuses is to make Illinois a top destination for entrepreneurs,” she said.
The state has existing programs for startups but is looking at possibly providing capital costs for incubators/co-working spaces. It’s been doing some of that in Chicago and the plan would be to support more initiatives.
“I think it’s time we did something like that down here,” Koch said.
She agreed that the regional approach is best, because of budget availability. She also added, parts of DCEO’s five-year plan would require legislation and it will be rolled out as components become available.
Duree said multiple sources will have to be sought out for various funding or contributions.
He also suggested two resources if the accelerator trends toward manufacturing.
One would be to set up an accelerator account through TechShop, which is opening up in the Cortex Building in St. Louis. It offers “very high end” prototype manufacturing equipment, and account holders gain access to equipment for use on a monthly or annual basis.
The second thing would be to contact Marc Bowers, who conducts product camps in St. Louis. “He’s actively engaged for any city that wants to do it. That’s a great resource without a lot of costs.”
Artinger said later he has reached out to Bowers for input.
Several Belleville area banks had representatives at the meeting. One said there needed to be about a five-year commitment to the project to lure the interest of the financial community.
“It’s very hard to lend to entrepreneurs because it’s a very high-risk deal. It’s a different profile. It becomes investment capital as opposed to bank debt,” he said. “We all want to lend to businesses and have them succeed. We just can’t be wrong very often.”
Further, he suggested: “Figure out how to get that money committed, whether it’s state, county, city, cities. Somehow that needs to be coordinated and I think the rest of it will follow.”
Artinger promised to send updates to those at the meeting via email and asked those present to email him any kind of support.
“That will give us a really good understanding of what kind of participation we need and what kind of funds we have to go out and try to get commitments for,” Artinger said.
He’s hopeful of having a business plan drawn up with a few weeks of those responses.