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The Ozark Chamber of Commerce is putting its know-how into a business incubator that helps budding companies get up and running.

By Ettie Berneking

Mar 2015

Photographed by Kevin O'Riley

When 75 percent of your community hits the exit ramp out of town each day, how do you encourage local businesses to go against traffic and set up shop in town? You start small. 

At least that’s what the Commerce Carl G. Hefner Enterprise Center is doing, and it’s working.

Managed by the Ozark Chamber of Commerce, the center houses nine private offices and what they’ve dubbed the dream center, a large room equipped with eight computer desks and work spaces where driven entrepreneurs can kickstart their businesses without worrying about hefty overhead costs each month. The center, which is also the new residence of the Ozark Chamber of Commerce, officially opened its doors after the new year in 2014. Eight months later, only one of the nine private offices was available for rent. The first eight were claimed quickly, and businesses moved in, switched on computers and made space for their coffee mugs in the community break room.

“We built the center around a three-year game plan,” says Dori Grinder, executive director of the Ozark Chamber of Commerce. “We are already far ahead of schedule.”

The idea to set up the center, which essentially serves as an incubator for local businesses that need space and support to grow their fledgling companies, came about as the chamber started searching for a bigger and better home base. “We wanted a space that was more reflective of our professional association,” Grinder says. “We had to figure out what we as a chamber really want to be. What type of space did we want, and how were we going to pay for it?” That’s when the idea of starting a business incubator came up. And the idea surfaced again when Grinder and her team began working with Doug Pitt, who owns the building the business incubator and chamber are now housed in.

“As a member of the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce, he knows a chamber is a strong organization and can be really instrumental in a community,” Grinder says. Pitt’s building was available, but it was way more space than the chamber needed. So he suggested attaching a business incubator. “The stars just aligned,” Grinder says. “We immediately started planning.” That summer, fall and winter, Grinder and her team, including Pitt, cast their net far and wide to learn how other business incubators operated, what worked, what didn’t and how they could partner the chamber’s resources and expertise with this new business hub.

 

Hitting the Ground Running

After much research and a successful capital campaign that raised the necessary $200,000, the new Ozark Chamber of Commerce and Carl G. Hefner Enterprise Center were open for businessr. “At first, we wanted to keep this idea quiet,” Grinder says. “What if this didn’t work? What if we got the door shut in our faces and couldn’t get anyone to rent the offices? But time after time, we kept hearing that this was a fantastic idea. Donors wanted to know how much we needed and if they could give us the check right then. It was awesome and also scary.”

But with all but one office leased within eight months of opening, failure was no longer a concern, and two part-time employees were hired to manage and run the center.

Inside, the chamber and center share a reception area, two large meeting rooms, a comfy break room, bathrooms, printers, copiers and all the office supplies you could want as a new company. Rent on the offices ranges from $160 for the small offices with enough space for one, up to $595 for the larger offices that have their own entrances and much more legroom.

 

Creating Relationships

William Lawrence, Attorney, was the center’s third tenant, and the firm still calls the center’s front office home. “They had an office on the square with a residential apartment above them,” Grinder says. “One morning they got a phone call saying there had been a leak in the apartment, and their office was now flooded.” By morning, the water had already damaged the walls and floors, ruined files and burned up the copier—and there were meetings scheduled for that afternoon and a case to work on. “They came to us like deer in the headlights and asked if we could house them for a while,” Grinder says. “They were even able to use our furniture during this time. Bill was in a trial that day, and they had client meetings at the Carl G. Hefner Enterprise Center at 3 that afternoon.” 

What was supposed to be a temporary move has been a long-term switch. Grinder suspects most of the center’s tenants will stick around for three to five years in order to get established in the community. And to help them do just that, the center has partnered with the University of Missouri Extension to offer classes on everything from how to write a business plan to navigating QuickBooks.

Turnout has been great. Most classes have maxed out, a fact Grinder is thrilled with. “Even our chamber members take advantage of the classes,” she says. “Even if they’re not involved with the center, that’s great! If it makes Ozark businesses stronger, that’s our goal.”