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Office community to promote small business growth

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Aiken native Catie Rabun saw an opportunity to cultivate an environment for small businesses to thrive in downtown Aiken.

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And she wasn’t the only one.

Rabun, president of Caradasa LLC, has joined forces with University of South Carolina Aiken to foster a new office community inside an existing two-story brick building at 237 Park Ave. in downtown Aiken to promote small business growth. The upper level of the 19,000-square-foot structure, deemed The Mill on Park, will be renovated into energy-efficient offices of varying sizes for start-up and established businesses, said Rabun, who recently started Caradasa, a real estate development and investment business.

“I’m a young professional,” said Rabun, who works full-time as a project manager at Hammond’s Ferry in North Augusta. “I love vibrant cities and towns, and Aiken has the bones for it. I think the more people you have working and living downtown, the more vibrant that downtown is going to be.”

The facility’s 9,000-square-foot upstairs will be separated into about a dozen “micro” offices as small as 100 square feet and larger spaces for companies with more employees.

Cost-saving measures, such as shared amenities, utilities and appliances, will assist in reducing overhead expenses for businesses. Companies also will have the option to sign short-term leases.

“We’re hoping that it provides the flexibility so that if businesses expand or contract that they’re not locked into a certain square footage,” Rabun said. “The whole model would be flexible to adjust to the market depending on what the demand is for.”

Rabun began collaboration efforts with USC Aiken this summer after learning the college’s chancellor, Sandra Jordan, shared a similar idea for economic development in downtown.

The program will give USC Aiken students a first-hand business experience as they help and learn from companies headquartered at The Mill. Personnel with the college’s small business development center also will provide their expertise when needed, Jordan said.

“I think we can bring value added to an already vibrant micro-community of small businesses to help them develop and accelerate,” Jordan said.

“You want to send in those students who are close to graduating, who have a full complement of knowledge to assist those businesses. Meanwhile, they’re learning about real-world issues.”

The building, which already houses a legal publication office downstairs, has sat underutilized for a decade, said David Jameson, president and CEO of the Greater Aiken Chamber of Commerce.

“It’s going to bring some new energy and excitement to that corner of a very prominent block,” he said. “It’s going to bring students down there and connect them with innovators. I just see this as a really nice opportunity for Aiken.”

Rabun said she envisions any type of professional use for the facility, ranging from creative agencies to engineering firms.

Rabun noted that the business model differs from a typical incubator-type program in that companies will be encouraged to stay in The Mill and not ushered out to operate on their own after a certain period of time.

“In this case, we’re not really trying to move businesses in and out of the building,” Rabun said. “We want them to benefit from the shared amenities and lower overhead costs.”

Rabun estimates that her company will invest more than $1 million into the project.

Interior renovations on the building are expected to begin in September and should be finished for tenants to move in by early 2014. Benches, tables and beautifying features will be added to green space in front of the building, Rabun said.

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