Jim Flannery, a co-founder of Four Athens, spoke to the agency’s board Thursday about the relationship his team has built with the Athens Downtown Development Authority, which gives Flannery’s organization a $50 subsidy each month for every new entrepreneur venture brought into the city’s downtown area.
Since starting in late 2011 in an office next to University of Georgia’s historic Arch, Four Athens has grown to 63 companies that operate in offices scattered throughout four downtown buildings. The incubator has spawned virtual consulting companies, social media ventures, online ticket-selling sites and video game development.
“It’s not about the office space,” Flannery said. “It’s about the community that’s built. What the office is important for is being around a community of people that are doing the same thing, that are inspiring.”
Flannery and four others created Four Athens as a means of connecting entrepreneurs with money, mentors and other talent to help them succeed. As part of his agreement with the Athens Downtown Development Authority, businesses must generate less than $150,000 annually, be in existence no longer than three years and have three or fewer employees. Each startup can garner subsidies for the organization for a year.
“Every company that is still in business has stayed in downtown except three or four that have grown so big that there’s no real convenient space for them to be in downtown,” Flannery said.
Flannery was joined at the meeting by Eric Parker and Grace Belangia, representing Clubhou.se, a gathering place on Broad Street for tech-driven entrepreneurs.
Parker opened the club in December 2012 with 12 founding members. Since last summer, membership has ballooned by 80 percent, made up greatly by Fort Gordon personnel. This year, more than 20 companies affiliated with the Clubhou.se are expected to bring in about $3.5 million in revenue, Parker said.
“There’s no greater way to revitalize our downtown than to spur new business growth,” said Parker, an Augusta native who designed startup incubators for nearly a decade in California’s Bay Area. “Because of my background in Silicon Valley and my understanding of the tech world, to me technology was the natural avenue to do that.”
Flannery’s incubator model is a private-public collaboration in which downtown Athens landlords help out by offering lower lease prices. For the program, the Athens DDA set aside $30,000 of which less than half has been used by the group of entrepreneurs. The authority also allocated $10,000 to assist in rent costs so Four Athens could have a permanent event space and downtown headquarters.
Augusta Downtown Development Authority executive director Margaret Woodard supported the idea, but said they’d likely need to look at methods other than financial aid to assist with a potential incubator in Augusta. She noted that her Athens counterparts weren’t as restricted financially because they receive funding through managing of the city’s downtown parking.
The Augusta DDA had requested $3 million in new special purpose local options sales tax money to use toward creating a business tech incubator, but the proposal was not included in the city’s SPLOST package.
“I’d love for us to form a committee or do something and really start a strong conversation for this,” said Woodard, who’s scheduled to tour the Athens properties with Flannery this weekend.
Authority Chairman Cameron Nixon said too that he’d like to open the lines of communication regarding the project.
“This to me is all about economic development,” he said. “This could be the heart of downtown forever and ever.”
Parker said he already has long-term plans of creating a large-scale incubator equipped with state-of-the art technology, adding that it would require federal and state grants as well as local support.
“I think we can all agree that we really love Augusta,” he said. “And so the next step is to just start working together to make it that place that we all believe in.”