Saturday, December 7, 2013

PEMBROKE - Officials at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke see a bright future in a musty former furniture store on a side street in downtown.

They're looking past the old tile floor, the bald fluorescent lighting, the chipped paint and the dingy brick.

They're looking into the empty, echoey space and seeing a vision of a modern, refurbished place to nurture a host of startup businesses.

That vision is on its way to becoming reality, university officials told about 50 business people and residents Friday.

Next year, the university plans to start overhauling the 16,000-square-foot storefront off Third Street and turning it into incubator space for eight to 12 startups. Plans call for the incubator to open by August 2015, but Chancellor Kyle R. Carter said he'd like for it to happen sooner.

"I'm pushing for the spring of 2015," he said.

UNCP expects the incubator to produce 115 jobs and create private investment of nearly $1.2 million within its first three years.

Carter hatched the idea for the incubator about two years ago. Wendy Lowery, the school's vice chancellor for advancement, said Carter saw the incubator as a way to help businesses, help the town, help students with opportunities for internships and help the university build a stronger relationship with the town. The incubator site is about a 10-minute walk to campus, which is on the outskirts of Pembroke's business district.

"The chancellor really wanted to bridge the gap between the university and the town," Lowery said.

University officials said businesses in the incubator will be able to seek help from professors and students with special expertise. The incubator also will be home to two UNCP business development programs: the Thomas Family Center for Entrepreneurship and the Small Business and Technology Development Center.

The refurbished building will have movable walls, making it easy to adjust space for the needs of different businesses, Lowery said.

The aim, said business professor Michael Menefee, is to help fledgling businesses grow to the point that they move out on their own, thus making way for new startups to come in.

"It's going to be a nice facility and a nice resource," he said.

The university is building the incubator with $1.1 million in grants - $932,000 from the U.S. Commerce Department's Economic Development Administration, and $200,000 from the Golden LEAF Foundation. To obtain the grants, UNCP first had to raise $210,000 in private contributions.