April 30, 2012

Business Incubator Puts Independence on National Stage - KC Star

Add one more destination tourism site to Independence: the new business incubator that has given new life to abandoned hospital.
Photo by KC Star - Allison Long

Last week about 40 municipal officials from all over the country rode buses to Independence for a guided tour through the Independence Regional Ennovation Center.

The visitors, among about 1,000 officials attending the Transforming Local Government convention in Kansas City, inspected the creative urban reuse of a large empty building, in this case a former hospital that had operated for about a century in older northwest Independence.

 Where there once was an 8,000-square-foot hospital kitchen, with its walk-in refrigerators and freezer, several individual kitchen stations are now rented out by the hour.
Where doctors once operated in eight surgical suites, eight lab spaces are now outfitted with equipment needed for bio-tech startups.

In a vacant complex that once was home to about 1,000 jobs, the Ennovation Center now stands as a new source of economic momentum.

“It’s fabulous. It’s a great economic development tool,” said Donna Silva, finance director of Rancho Cordova, Calif.  “This is creating new businesses instead of just shifting existing businesses around.”

The tour gave Tom Lesnak, president of Independence Economic Development, an opportunity to showcase a project that has driven much dialogue in Independence since the old hospital shut down in May 2007.

He described how the opening of Centerpoint Medical Center by HCA Midwest in southeast Independence had been accompanied by the closing of two existing Independence hospitals. One was the Independence Regional Health Center at 1509 W. Truman Road.
The question, he said, had been just what to do with an empty hospital in an area already anxious for new investment.

The answer: a business incubator that would retrofit existing facilities – such as the kitchen and surgical suites – and bring new traffic through the old neighborhood.

Demolition of the hospital’s older north tower began in January 2009, and interior renovations were under way in the south tower — built in 1974 — by that spring. The Independence School District joined the project, and today about 150 district employees work in renovated space in the south building.

The hospital chapel was turned into a meeting room. Some areas of the incubator, meanwhile, have grown faster than others.  The culinary component has proven popular. Kitchen startups increase during hard times, Lesnak said, and since the kitchen incubator opened in October 2010, center officials have fielded about 100 inquiries. Today 30 entrepreneurs, about half of whom travel from Kansas, work in the space.

Four individual kitchens are “open” kitchens, while one “closed” kitchen, used by several clients, produces gluten-free goods.

Several kitchen entrepreneurs met with the visitors last week, describing the difference the incubator has made in their professional lives.
Jill McEnroe, of Frannie Franks Coffee Cakes, described how she has placed her products in 12 stores across the Kansas City area.
Valerie Jennings, the entrepreneur behind Hippie Chow, told how she is turning out enough granola to supply about 50 stores across the country. That includes several locations of Dean and Deluca, among them a store in Singapore.
Darrell Tindal and Andrea Schnetzler, who operate The Berry Nutty Farm, have been producing their jams and jellies in Ennovation Center kitchen space since last May. Such a business would have been beyond their financial reach without the center, Tindal said, adding that just the cost of equipment would have reached well into the six figures.

But there are additional benefits, Tindal added. Operators of festivals and farmers markets, he said, have been vigilant in checking to see that products are produced in a licensed kitchen.
“We would not be able to have a business without the Ennovation Center,” Tindal said.
Three clients are using the incubator’s business and technology space, which offers private offices as well as high-speed Internet and telephone service.

Landing bio-tech clients has been challenging, however.
Just when planning for the incubator began in earnest, hard times arrived. While kitchen startups increase during recessions, the venture capital needed for bio-tech startups is often no longer available, Lesnak said. But recently the Ennovation Center landed its first such startup: AndroJek, a male fertility testing company.

This much brainpower in just so much square footage makes for a brand new building, said Germaine Brewington, audit services director for Durham, N.C.
“It’s great that the equipment the entrepreneurs need is here,” she said.
“But then you have these creative people come in and get ideas from one another. It’s a great use of space.”

Read more here: http://www.kansascity.com/2012/04/24/3574128/business-incubator-puts-independence.html#storylink=misearch#storylink=cpy