When Steve Brock wanted to establish his own company, he didn't have to do it on his own.
Brock found the Small Business Incubator at America's Central Port in Granite City, which helped him with resources to start his business, Supplied Industrial, a distribution and installer of mechanical supplies and equipment for wastewater treatment, sewage and water companies.
Supplied Industrial continues to operate from the incubator eight years later and currently has six employees. Brock said the incubator provides many advantages.
"No. 1, the location was great because it's right off a main highway," Brock said, referring to the adjacent access to Illinois 3 and nearby interstates. "It's relatively close to St. Louis, which is probably the biggest industrial area that we have in the Midwest.
"There are a lot of different ways to shop materials here and have materials delivered by barge, train or truck. All around, it's been a great experience. They continue to upgrade the facility since we've been there. We plan on staying a little bit longer."
Investing in the future
Belleville businessman Jim Allsup wants to see more initiatives like the one Brock experienced. Last month, he made a $2.2 million long-term donation to the Center for Entrepreneurship at St. Louis University's John Cook School of Business. It's the latest and one of the most substantial examples of supporting budding businesses in the region.
Allsup, who is the founder of Allsup Inc., in Belleville, a nationwide provider of assistance to those seeking Social Security disability and veteran's disability and Medicare services, sponsors the week-long Allsup Summer Entrepreneurship Academy at the Cook School and Southwestern Illinois College in Belleville. He personally participates in the camp, which brings high school students from across the country together to find solutions to real world market needs.
Allsup said he wanted to share what he has learned with budding young entrepreneurs, but he also said more needs to be done.
"Entrepreneurs are born here like anywhere else, but they leave because they don't have a support system," Allsup said. "It was rare that I kept my business here and it was even more unusual that I survived. I was on my own without help. Either I made it on my own or I didn't make it at all."
Entrepreneurship has been part of the curriculum at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, but lack of state money forced the university's Entrepreneurship Center to close two years ago.
University lecturer and former Entrepreneurship Center director Kristein Jarden said she continues to work with the Small Business Incubator at America's Central Port to help find potential entrepreneurs, counsel them on a business plan and help them find available resources.
"We have a small business development center that provides business advisers for those businesses," Jarden said. "We have business professionals willing to donate time or assistance at this incubator to get the right service to these tenants."
"I think we're improving," she said. "There is lots of interest in the Small Business Incubator in the metro-east."
The Small Business Incubator was established to assist aspiring entrepreneurs in the metro-east. America's Central Port established the program in 2002, a year after acquiring the Melvin Price Support Center, which the government declared in excess in 1995 and closed four years later.
The port authority moved into buildings the Army occupied, created an adjacent business park and established the Small Business Incubator to promote business startups.
The incubator is 70 percent occupied. Port business development manager Frank Miles said the incubator helps entrepreneurs hatch their enterprises for as low as $5 a day, helping launch dozens of businesses during the past decade. Miles said the incubator is paid for solely by individual leases from tenants and not from any tax revenue, and is part of the port district's portfolio of about 70,000 square feet of office space.
Miles also said the Small Business Incubator, which is in the basement of the former army depot's headquarters, is being renovated and will be renamed "The Enterprise Center." As part of this refurbishment, Miles wants to put together an advisory board to include some local business people.
He said the port is working with small business developers and wants to host a small business event that focuses on trying to increase available resources for women and minorities looking to start their own business. Another idea is to reuse the former Army depot cafeteria and create a culinary incubator there. The space already has ovens, fryers and space for food distribution.
"We want to get to where we're (taking) these people who are starting their business here and graduating them out" into the community, Miles said.
Another metro-east business incubator is helping aspiring business owners for the past year in East St. Louis.
In October 2011, Joe Jackson established City Professional Center Business Incubation at City Professional Center, a building he owns at 4601 State St. This business incubator provides training, helps clients devise a business plan and equips them with office space, phone and Internet access.
Jackson said he founded the incubator because he believes small businesses will be the catalyst to help the economy rebound, especially in East St. Louis.
"I think that will bring it back," Jackson said. "Small businesses will bring back the economy. That's what it is going to take."
City Professional Center Business Incubation is a certified 501(c)(3) nonprofit venture and thus is tax-exempt. Jackson and his business partner own the building that houses it and, up to now, incurred all expenses, including offering rent-free space.
So far, City Professional Center Business Incubation helped give rise to the Scott Group, an insurance company, and is currently helping to launch a printing business called LCD Printing Co.
Help was a blessing
One such success story is Theresa Wilson, who established her nonprofit business in her basement in 2004 before arriving at the port's Small Business Incubator a year later.
Her business, called the Blessing Basket Project, promotes the sale of baskets made by individuals in some of the poorest communities in the world and shares the profits with women from these impoverished countries.
Wilson said the program helped support the organization to the point when she could leave the nest in February 2011. She now operates the business on her own in St. Louis.
Wilson said the port program afforded her a lot of opportunities.
"One of those, not the least of which, was low rent space," she said. "If we had had to pay really high rates for rent back in the day when we were starting, I think it could have killed the organization. So having an opportunity to have offices at such low cost, a convenient location for us, it was very convenient for me."
The port also provided business advisers and money options to help Wilson's enterprise. When the business needed to expand, the port was more than accommodating, Wilson said. She said the port took care of all of the construction costs of the expansion and allowed her to pay them off over time. "That was a very critical thing that they did," she said.
"I don't know where we'd be if we did not have this place to incubate," she said. "For six good years, they afforded us of so many things. The expertise is another thing. It's not that we just had a lease there at the port. I don't believe we would have been able to make it. They made sure they introduced us to people whom they thought could help us."
Allsup says he wants to reach aspiring entrepreneurs at the high school level. That's why he invested in SLU's John Cook Business School and helped create the Allsup Summer Entrepreneurship Academy at SLU and SWIC. He said he want to create a duplicate program to one at Fresno State University in California, where high school students earn credits that are transferable to a dozen community colleges.
Although Allsup acknowledges the success at the port's Small Business Incubator and City Professional Center Business Incubation, he said the number of entrepreneurial-assistance programs here is insufficient.
"I'm sure the small business incubators in Granite City and East St. Louis are doing a fine job," he said. "Unfortunately, whatever is being done to support area entrepreneurs is insignificant to the need. The situation is dire in St. Louis, even more so on the east side."
Contact reporter Will Buss at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2526.