Council gives preliminary OK to use old City Hall for business incubator

Sean C. Morgan

Local economic development organizations want to open a small business incubator and shared work space downtown, emulating the successes of organizations like the Corvallis Foundry, which supports local small businesses and the local economy.

Last week they asked the City Council to allow them to start the facility in the soon-to-be-vacated City Hall downtown.

Council members gave a consensus thumbs-up to the idea.

“In my time here, I start to imagine there’s a golden road running through Sweet Home,” said George Medellin, president of the Chamber of Commerce and a business adviser with the Linn-Benton Community College Small Business Development Center, in a statement to the council.

Medellin said that road, Highway 20, running from Newport to Boston, Mass., to him represents the national-level potential for prosperity in the Sweet Home community.

The shared work space facility will show the region that Sweet Home is “open for business,” Medellin said, citing examples of the challenges of being an entrepreneur in the area.

One man wanted to try opening a franchise in Sweet Home, Medellin said. He checked out a couple of places but decided against them and went to Lebanon.

“George,” Medellin said quoting the man. “They rolled out the red carpet for me.”

Lebanon was there to support the entrepreneur no matter what, Medellin said. He’s been operating in Lebanon for several years now.

Stayton has a similar coworking space, he said, and it has spawned several multi-million dollar businesses started and operated by people in their 20s and 30s.

These kinds of centers offer several services to businesses, he said. Among them, they connect the businesses to their communities. They develop opportunities with regional partners.

Here in Sweet Home, the facility would offer low-cost space to local businesses and house the SBDC, which offers no-cost advice to local businesses, conducting free seminars like “Going into Business.” Down the road, it would have commercial space available as well.

The center would continue partnerships with various entrepreneurial support organizations such as RAIN and the Corvallis Foundry and form a business accountability group, where business owners can come together and talk about what want they do, supporting each other.

The shared work space is saying, “We are open for business,” Medellin said.

Medellin and representatives of various local economic development organizations, including the Sweet Home Active Revitalization Effort and Sweet Home Economic Development Group asked the City Council April 23 during the council’s regular meeting whether it would be willing to allow the group to use the City Hall building, at 1140 12th Ave., to get started after city officials move into the new City Hall, 3225 Main St., in the next couple of months.

“I’m willing to work with this,” said Councilor Dave Trask.

Mayor Greg Mahler said he wholly supports the idea. His son works for a similar organization in San Jose, Calif., and it has been successful.

Medellin and others who spoke to the council said the coworking facilities have been especially successful in rural communities, allowing them to draw from among multiple communities.

Bill Matthews, who owns and operates Health Markets insurance, 1228 Main St., told the council that after settling down from a consultant position that had him traveling across the west, he opened a health insurance business.

Working from home, things were not going well, Matthews said. He had to find a different business model – and open a local office.

Fortunately, he said, he had the resources to do so; but had there been a local Foundry, he likely would have opted to start there.

Matthews, past president of the Chamber of Commerce, said he is confident that Sweet Home has people working at home who would like to expand and could use the support.

Brad Attig, director of the Corvallis Foundry Collective, said there’s demand.

People are making products inside their houses, in their garages, he said. They’re in business, and nobody even knows. Some of them wonder about turning their activities into real businesses.

The Innovation Lab would help, taking up the two floors of City Hall, with makers spaces downstairs, Attig said.

City Manager Ray Towry noted that the idea of a shared work space facility has been kicked around by SHARE off and on for years. With the council’s approval, the group can begin working out details with the city, with help from the Corvallis Foundry using the technology it already uses, to establish the new Innovation Lab.

Councilor James Goble said he has heard for years that the city must move out of this building with its leaks, mold and other problems.

“It looks great, but it’s a really old building,” said Councilor Lisa Gourley, who said she also had reservations.

With the city moving out of City Hall, it’s not good for the building to sit empty, Mahler said.

The group looked extensively at the old Wells Fargo building at the intersection of 15th and Main streets, trying to find a way to purchase it, said SHEDG President Ron Moore; but it’s got an offer that is expected to close shortly.

The group looked at least three other locations, Moore said. One wasn’t large enough, and the owners of two properties had visions of their own and were not interested.

Recently, the idea of City Hall came up, and members of the group started looking into it, Moore said.

The chamber and SHEDG considered combining their office spaces about a decade ago, and SHEDG purchased a lot neighboring the chamber to begin the process. The effort failed, Moore said, but it planted a seed.

He thinks the coworking facility could use City Hall for one to three years, Moore said. “I just think it’s a good opportunity we shouldn’t miss.”

City Hall is habitable, Towry said, and its use as a shared work space facility would be short-term.

Mahler said other opportunities exist if the Foundry is successful, although he said details cannot be made public right now.

It appears to be a win-win, said Councilor Diane Gerson.

“We are leaving the building for a reason,” Trask said, but “it’s not going to fall down in a couple of weeks.”

The councilors all agreed by consensus to move forward with the idea. Present were Cortney Nash, Gourley, Mahler, Gerson, Goble and Trask. Susan Coleman was absent.