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Oconee County incubator building businesses, jobs

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The Oconee Business Center is funded by the county and operated by the Tri-County Entrepreneurial Development Corp. and the Piedmont chapter of Score, a mentoring arm of the U.S. Small Business Administration. (Photo/Teresa Cutlip)

Business ideas have been nurtured and hatched in the Oconee Business Center in downtown Walhalla for more than five years. The unassuming “brown building,” as the locals call it, houses office space and open bay and garage-type space for startup businesses.

“The county’s goal was to create jobs, which we’ve done. Our job was to create solid businesses that could stand on their own, and we’ve been doing that,” said Oconee Business Center Director Terry McKenney, adding that about 40 jobs have been created from the businesses that have found success at the incubator.

“This is kind of a unique place because of the collaboration between the Tri-County Entrepreneurial Development Corp. and Score,” McKenney said of the center’s operation. “This may be the only place like it in the country where Score personnel actually run the place, but it’s funded by the county.”

Score is an organization of 15,000 members and is the mentoring arm of the U.S. Small Business Administration. The Piedmont chapter of the organization works with the Oconee Business Center. He said Oconee County pays the utilities and there is a no-cost lease which contribute to lower costs for the center. The center is staffed with volunteers, which also keeps expenses low.

“It’s ideally suited for startups. A lot of startups are done at home. It’s hard to work at home; there are a lot of distractions, so they come here.” McKenney said.

Fifteen businesses have come through the Oconee Business Center, including the seven there now: Upstate Rope LLC, Front Gate Landscapes LLC, Jo Houston Real Estate, Moresun Designs, Red Barn Marketing and licensed professional counselor Colleen Goff.

Goff came to the incubator in 2014 and is preparing to move out to her own location. Her counseling service has grown to 95 clients since she came to the incubator wanting to start her own business.

“I worked with the Department of Mental Health for a long time and decided I wanted to go out on my own,” Goff said. “I took a small-business course, met Terry, and he hooked me up with everything I needed to know.”

Goff was able to build her client base while operating out of an office at the incubator. “Starting out was rather more expensive than I expected, so being here helped out a lot,” she said.

McKenney said the main requirement to being a client of the center is that the business is a startup but “we will take people who are coming in from another area that want to open an office or have a presence in Oconee County.” He said there needs to be a business plan, or the beginning of one, but Score opened The Business Plan Center in April to provide education and hands-on learning in developing a business plan.

The Plan Center is open to anyone, not just incubator tenants, and clients have access to Live Plan business planning software at no cost. At the end of the process, they will have a professional-looking business plan, according to McKenney.

“The critical part of a small business is the first year and then maybe up to three years,” McKenney said, which is why the center has a time limit of three years for each startup. There is some flexibility however on a per case basis if a business needs more time.

“We possibly will let you stay for another one or two years, up to five. Five years is the limit,” he said. “We want to be able to turn the space over and let someone else use it.”

Space at the Oconee Business Center is available on an escalating rental rate scale. For new tenants signing a one-year lease, the first three months will be free of charge, the next six months will be at half price and the remaining three months will be at the full base rate. Pricing per month varies based on the size needed by client.

The Oconee Business Center is part of the economic development efforts of the Oconee Economic Alliance. It is designed to nurture a startup business during the critical first three years of existence. The center provides low-cost office or warehouse and light-manufacturing space, business mentoring and utilities, including internet.

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