The timetable to establish a proposed center to nurture new downtown Augusta businesses has shrunk from years to months after the plan won $2.35 million in federal funding to be released in early 2023.
Small-business creation surged nationwide during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Now, local leaders want to keep that momentum going.
Community stakeholders in the center are expected to meet “in the next week or so” to help chart the direction and scope of the project, according to Margaret Woodard, executive director of the Downtown Development Authority of Augusta.
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The center will be established in partnership with Augusta Technical College, which is seeking a suitable building on Broad Street to open the center.
“We’re still fine-tuning what the final project will look like,” she said. “We want to make sure we capture everybody’s vision.”
Because of the new federal funding, “the timeline for opening the center has moved up from about three years to as soon as four months,” said Elena Radding, press secretary for US Sen. Raphael Warnock, who helped secure the congressionally directed funds for the center.
The funds will be disbursed “sometime at the beginning of the year,” Woodard said.
The project has been touted as a “microenterprise center” that budding business owners can use as office space, retail space to sell products or just a starting point to seek advice not only on starting a business but keeping it alive.
A look at why a microenterprise center is needed in Augusta
The microenterprise concept was pioneered by Bangladeshi entrepreneur Muhammad Yurus, who received the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize for establishing a bank in the 1970s specifically to grant loans to the rural poor to start their own businesses. For example, a woman might ask for a loan to buy a sewing machine to start a business as a seamstress.
“A lot of research has been done on microenterprise outside the US, so this is a fairly new phenomenon within the US,” said Dr. Dinesh Hasija, an assistant professor at Augusta University’s Hull College of Business. “If you think about microenterprises, they mainly exist in developing countries where there is a lack of options, low employment opportunities and people who are looking to become entrepreneurs.”
Definitions vary for a microenterprise business, Hasija said. Internationally a microbusiness has fewer than 10 employees. In the United States, a microbusiness has fewer than five employees. According to the Washington, DC-based Association for Enterprise Opportunity, about 91% of America’s 27.2 million businesses are microbusinesses.
Demand increases to have a microenterprise center in Augusta
The fact that several new businesses sprouted on Broad Street during COVID-19 signaled to Woodard a rising demand for a microenterprise center.
“This was a little bit pandemic-driven, if you want to know the truth,” she said. “We saw entrepreneurs just coming out of the woodwork. There are communities that have done incubators for years. It was something we’ve always wanted downtown, but could never get the partners to align, and then the pandemic hit.”
“People were facing a lot of challenges. They couldn’t go to work, or if they could go to work, they were facing a lot of uncertainties with the virus itself, and they have people to take care of at home,” he said. “At the same time, it created an opportunity for them to look at other sources of income.”
Woodard called small businesses the “backbone” of downtown Augusta, and a microenterprise center can strengthen that backbone.
“There’s nothing worse than driving down the street and seeing an empty storefront and saying, ‘What if?'” she said. “We want to stop the ‘what if.'”