The timeline to establish a proposed center to support new businesses in downtown Augusta has gone from years to months after the plan secured $2.35 million in federal funding to be released in early 2023 .
Small business creation has surged nationwide during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Now local leaders want to maintain that momentum.
According to Margaret Woodard, executive director of Augusta’s Downtown Development Authority, community stakeholders at the center are expected to meet “within the next week” to help set the direction and scope of the project.
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The center will be established in partnership with Augusta Technical College, which is seeking a suitable building on Broad Street to open the centre.
“We’re still fine-tuning what the final draft will look like,” she said. “We want to make sure we capture everyone’s vision.”
Due to the new federal funding, “the schedule for opening the center has gone from about three years to four months,” said Elena Radding, press secretary for U.S. Senator Raphael Warnock, who helped secure the funds led by the Congress for the center.
The funds will be disbursed “at the beginning of the year,” Woodard said.
The project has been billed as a “micro-enterprise hub” that aspiring business owners can use as office space, retail space to sell products, or simply as a jumping off point to seek advice not only on starting a business, but also on its survival.
An overview of why a microenterprise center is needed in Augusta
The concept of microenterprise was pioneered by Bangladeshi entrepreneur Muhammad Yurus, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for establishing a bank in the 1970s specifically to provide loans to poor rural people to start their own businesses. For example, a woman can apply for a loan to buy a sewing machine to start a sewing business.
“A lot of research has been done on microbusiness outside of the United States, so it’s a fairly new phenomenon in the United States,” said Dr. Dinesh Hasija, assistant professor at Hull College of Business at the University. Augusta University. “If you think about micro-enterprises, they mostly exist in developing countries where there’s a lack of options, low job opportunities, and people looking to become entrepreneurs.”
Definitions vary for a microenterprise business, Hasija said. Internationally, a micro-enterprise has less than 10 employees. In the United States, a micro-enterprise has fewer than five employees. According to the Washington, DC-based Association for Enterprise Opportunity, about 91% of America’s 27.2 million businesses are micro businesses.
Demand is increasing to have a micro-enterprise center in Augusta
The fact that several new businesses have sprung up on Broad Street during COVID-19 has signaled to Woodard a growing demand for a microenterprise center.
“It was kind of pandemic-related, if you want to know the truth,” she said. “We have seen entrepreneurs fresh out of the woods. There are communities that have been doing incubators for years. It’s something we always wanted downtown, but we could never get the partners to line up, and then the pandemic hit.
“People faced many challenges. They couldn’t go to work, or if they could go to work, they faced a lot of uncertainties with the virus itself, and they have people to care for at home,” he said. “At the same time, it gave them the opportunity to look for other sources of income.”
Woodard called small business the “backbone” of downtown Augusta, and a microbusiness center can strengthen that backbone.
“There’s nothing worse than driving down the street and seeing an empty storefront and saying, ‘What if? ‘” she said. “We want to stop the ‘what if’.”