Helping start-up companies with grants, loans and larger venture capital investments is among the highlights of a strategic plan being proposed by the Lawrence chamber of commerce and the Lawrence-Douglas County Economic Development Corporation.
Chamber leaders are beginning to present the draft plan to community leaders and will ask the city and county’s Joint Economic Development Council to approve it at a Sept. 11 meeting. Ultimately, city and county commissioners also will be asked to approve the plan.
Among the action items in the plan are the development of three countywide funds for an entrepreneurship scholarship, a revolving loan fund and a venture capital fund. Brady Pollington, vice president of economic development for The Chamber, Lawrence, Kansas said providing more financial assistance to start-up companies would coincide well with other community initiatives, such as designating downtown and parts of East Lawrence as a cultural arts district.
“That really has a chance to serve as a beacon,” Pollington said. “It is something that sends a message to entrepreneurs that says ‘this is a place I could live.’”
Pollington said details on how the initiative should be funded and how the programs should be administered still need to be developed, and likely will be part of the discussion that the Joint Economic Development Council has on the plan.
He said the plan envisions the scholarship program providing relatively small grants to promising companies that need help with rent or other start-up expenses. As envisioned, those funds wouldn’t have to be paid back. The revolving loan fund would provide larger amounts of funding to companies in the form of a loan, but perhaps at interest rates that are lower than what’s available from commercial lenders. The venture capital fund, he said, would be the most aggressive of the vehicles, with the fund taking actual ownership positions in promising companies.
Larry McElwain, the president and CEO of The Chamber, said the plan also envisions making the staff of the KU Small Business Development Center more accessible in the community. He said that might include creating regular office hours for SBDC staff, which currently is based in the chamber offices, in some of the multi-tenant office buildings that are offering small, affordable spaces to start-up companies.
“That center already dealt with 360 clients last year, and we think that number will increase,” McElwain said. “As it does, we think it increases our chances to have new businesses take off and really grow in the community.”
The plan also includes initiatives in other areas besides entrepreneurship. It proposes to:
• Initiate a study to determine the best target industries to attract to Lawrence and Douglas County. McElwain said the study might create a specific list of industries to focus on, or he might lobby for the study to more generally identify the community’s economic development strengths, which would provide the community flexibility in the types of industries it recruits. The plan states that economic development leaders currently see opportunities in the industries of logistics, advanced manufacturing, back office/financial, biosciences, human health and animal health.
• Complete the development of the Dwayne Peaslee Technical Training Center near 31st and Haskell. The Economic Development Corporation continues to work on the project with a consortium of area community colleges that would provide the vocational training at the site. The consortium recently has applied again for a $10 million federal Department of Labor grant to staff and equip the 80,000-square-foot industrial building that has been purchased by the EDC. Grant awards are expected to be announced by the end of the year. If approved, the center could be operational by late 2015.
“If we get that grant, it will be really helpful,” McElwain said. “If we don’t get the grant, we’ll have to regroup and figure out how we go forward. But I don’t think it will be a question of if we go forward. We may have to push back the start date, but we would figure out how to go forward.”