By Nicholas Hilburn, Morning News Arts and Entertainment Writer
Published: July 6, 2009
Francis Marion University is assuring prospective and current businesses in downtown they are not alone in their desire to stay above water. An essential part of the downtown Florence revitalization plan is sustaining current businesses and providing prospective businesses with the tools to establish themselves downtown, FMU President Dr. Fred Carter said.
Since the 1970’s, that mission has been the goal of the university’s Kelly Small Business Institute and, more recently, the FMU Center For Entrepreneurship. Those two entities are behind the university’s movement for a business incubator in down town Florence. Since securing for and beginning the construction of the FMU Performing Arts Center downtown, Carter said, “suggestions have been brought to us from across the region and certainly within the city.”
“Early on, discussions began about the possibility of trying to put a business incubator in downtown. It’s reasonable that the university would be approached on that because, for years, we’ve had a highly successful business Kelley Small Business Institute in our school of business,” he said. “The faculty of our school of business are extraordinary adept at being able to cultivate and develop applied programs, particularly small business assistance and it’s something I think they’ve become very, very good at doing.” The Kelly Small Business Institute offers business planning assistance to start-up and existing businesses in the Pee Dee, using the business faculty, staff and students at the university. The Center for Entrepreneurship offers classes in initiating and managing a small business and identifying economic needs and markets.
Leading the center is business professor and director of the FMU Center for Entrepreneurship, Dr Susan Peters. “The center offers a chance for any small business or developing business to develop their business plans,” she said. “We don’t write business plans for people, but we will work with them to write their business plans.” Peters said FMU small business programs have been around for quite awhile, but have failed to gain the recognition they need to reach out to the small business community in Florence. When it does reach out, she said a lot of people think we’re just making loans. We’re primarily advisory.”The Center for Entrepreneurship began this year, said Peters, but she hasn’t seen as much response for the downtown Florence area as she hoped. “We can’t seem to get everybody to realize we’re out there for them. We have a wealth of resources because we have the ability to draw on FMU resources,” she said. “If we got a biochemical business looking for help, I can call someone in that department for advice.” Peters said the advice offered depends upon the needs of the business. “Sometimes when somebody calls, all they need is (a business) outline and other times we need to guide them through the process of starting a business step by step,” she said.
Moving the services provided by the Center and the Business Institute into downtown is an important step in cultivating a sustainable business culture, Carter said. “The first thing you’ve got to be able to do is prove the viability relative to the product you’re providing to the customer base. No amount of federal funds is going to help that,” he said. “Part of what an incubator would do is sit down with the management of any business and, essentially, look at their business plan and understand how that business plan might be broadened, tweaked, redirect it in such a way to broaden its customer share. I suspect with many downtown businesses that’s a process that’s sorely needed: consultation with some folks (who) will work with them in terms of broadening their market share and expanding their customer base.”
A business incubator would also direct small businesses to external funds that are available to help businesses grow and develop, Carter said. “What we would love to do in a business incubator is get a lot of those support services compresses into a one-stop shop so that merchants downtown could essentially walk down the clock and acquire that support more directly,” he said. Carter says he thinks the ideal business incubator would be three floors. The first floor would provide start-up businesses that don’t want to invest money in office, as well as existing business struggling to stay afloat, with a retail space. The second floor would provide technical support such as secretarial services to businesses. The third floor would contain the Center for Entrepreneurship.
“The downtown area would make us a lot more accessible to people,” Peters said. “Certainly the goal of the Florence Downtown Develop Corp. is to get more businesses downtown. Businesses that have help when they start a much better chance of surviving.” “The help the Center offers is going to be very individualize. Some people need a push and some people need day-today advice, she said. “Some of the businesses in downtown we’d like to keep them there and help them expand their business. The companies that can’t afford to do that, we hope to make them more profitable so they can afford to do that.”