The timeline to establish a proposed center to fuel new businesses in downtown Augusta has shrunk from years to months after the plan won $2.35 million in federal funding to release in early 2023.
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, small business creation across the country increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now local leaders want to maintain that momentum.
According to Margaret Woodard, executive director of Augusta’s Downtown Development Authority, community stakeholders downtown are expected to meet “in the next week or so” to map out the direction and scope of the project.
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The center will be established in conjunction with Augusta Technical College, which is looking for 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 everyone’s vision.”
Because of the new federal funding, “the timeline for opening the center has moved from about three years to as much as four months,” said Elena Radding, press secretary for U.S. Senator Raphael Warnock, who helped secure the congressional-led funds. for the center.
The funds will be paid out “sometime at the beginning of the year,” Woodard said.
The project has been touted as a “micro-enterprise center” that aspiring entrepreneurs can use as an office space, retail space to sell products, or simply a starting point to seek advice not only about starting a business, but also keeping it alive. .
A look at why a micro-enterprise center is needed in Augusta
The concept of micro-enterprise was developed by Bangladeshi entrepreneur Muhammad Yurus, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for founding a bank in the 1970s that specifically lends to the rural poor to start their own businesses. . For example, a woman can apply for a loan to buy a sewing machine to start a business as a seamstress.
“A lot of research has been done on micro-enterprises outside of the US, so this is a fairly new phenomenon in the US,” said Dr. Dinesh Hasija, an assistant professor at Augusta University’s Hull College of Business. “If you think of micro-enterprises, they exist mainly in developing countries where there is a lack of options, few employment opportunities and people who want to become entrepreneurs.”
Definitions vary for a micro-enterprise, Hasija said. Internationally, a micro-enterprise has fewer than 10 employees. In the United States, a micro-enterprise has fewer than five employees. According to the Washington, DC-based Association for Enterprise Opportunity, about 91% of America’s 27.2 million companies are microenterprises.
Demand rises for a micro-enterprise center in Augusta
The fact that several new businesses sprung up on Broad Street during COVID-19 meant an increasing demand for a micro-enterprise center for Woodard.
“This was a bit pandemic-driven, if you want to know the truth,” she said. “We just saw entrepreneurs come out of the closet. There are communities that have been doing incubators for years. It was something we always wanted to have in the center, but we could never get the partners aligned, and then the pandemic hit.”
“People faced many challenges. They couldn’t go to work, or if they could go to work, they had a lot of insecurities 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 micro-enterprise center can strengthen that backbone.
“There’s nothing worse than driving down the street and seeing an empty shop window and saying, ‘What if?'” she said. “We want to stop the ‘what if’.”