Erica Bell: Hi, my name is Erica Bell and I am the Richmond Fed’s Community Development regional manager for North Carolina and South Carolina.
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We’re joined today by Tressa Gardner, associate vice president of the Southeastern Institute of Manufacturing and Technology and the Gould Business Incubator at Florence Darlington Technical College in the Pee Dee region of South Carolina. Welcome, Tressa.
Tressa Gardner: Thank you, Erica. I appreciate you inviting me today.
Bell: We appreciate you being here.
The Southeastern Institute of Manufacturing Technology (also known as SiMT) provides several services, including additive manufacturing (also known as 3D printing), advanced machining, and social media listening services. It supports industries that include advanced manufacturing, medical device development, aerospace, automotive, and research and development. SiMT also includes the Gould Business Incubator, which currently houses 35 small businesses and start-ups.
Tressa, can you give us a brief history of SiMT and the Gould Business Incubator?
Gardner: Certainly, thank you.
The SiMT officially opened in September of 2007 but was initially proposed in the early 2000s. When I came on board here at the college in 2003, I was actually hired under a National Science Foundation grant. I was provided with a document that told about the new technology park that was being considered for the area. The SiMT itself became a manufacturing center.
We house five business units here at the SiMT and my responsibilities include working with the directors of those. We have the conference center and event space. We also have advanced machining, the additive manufacturing center, social media listening center and the Gould Business Incubator. The social media listening center launched about four years ago. The others have been in existence almost since the beginning of the SiMT itself. The incubator was built in 2012 and launched officially in fall of 2013.
Bell: When it was originally formed, what funding streams or partnerships, policies, community organizations, and people were important in developing and growing this model? And how has that evolved over time?
Gardner: SiMT was launched and they thought that we would have one small building with smaller businesses coming off of the large hub, which would be the advanced manufacturing center. Just about the time we started raising money and issuing bonds and applying for grants, a hurricane hit which changed construction considerably. So, we ended up with one pretty large, 177,000-square-foot facility where everything is housed, including some of the academic programs.
A few years later, we built the business incubator. Initially we received a little over $2 million from the EDA – the Economic Development Administration. That money was managed by the Pee Dee Council of Governments. They helped us apply for the grant and they managed the funding. Basically, that money paved our parking lot and did all of the site work for the facility. An additional EDA grant in 2009 helped us to fund the Gould Business Incubator and that was $1.5 million, also run by the Pee Dee COG.
Those are just a few of the entities that assisted. The auditorium at the SiMT is named for Pee Dee Electric Cooperative. BB&T Bank has naming rights for one of our conference rooms. We also had support from lots of area manufacturers as well as Honda, Sunoco, those kinds of folks. Florence County Economic Development [Partnership] is actually housed at the SIMT. Up until almost a year ago, Darlington County Economic Development [Partnership] was housed in the incubator. They chose a while back to move back into downtown Darlington, which is about six miles from here.
Bell: It sounds like there are many very instrumental partners in the formation of this and I appreciate you explaining that.
As you move into today, SiMT houses the Gould Business Incubator, which has been a force in the region for the creation of small businesses. What trends are you seeing now in the creation of small businesses in your area and that have been assisted by SiMT and the Gould Business Incubator?
Gardner: The last year has been very interesting for us as we’re trying to come out of the pandemic. In January of last year, we had 20 small businesses in the incubator. In December of that year we actually had lost two small manufacturing firms. Both are still in existence, but one moved to North Carolina and one decided to no longer manufacture here. So, for a few weeks it seemed like, “What are we going to do right now with the way the economy is and people just seem to be struggling with the pandemic?”
Then we started a referral program and said, “If you’re in the incubator and you bring in a client who joins the incubator and pays their first month’s rent and their security deposit, then you get a month’s free rent.” That really helped us.
Bell: Give me an example of a startup that benefited from the incubator during the pandemic.
Gardner: Janelle Lodge runs Lodge Transportation and he had been in the automotive industry for years. He was a car salesman. I think having to deal with the public and the pandemic, he just decided it was time to go out on his own to start his own business. He has flourished, and he actually brought in several other businesses, including another person who does medical transport like he does.
We’ve gone in the last year from 20 businesses to, as you said, as of this month 35. We added an additional coworking space. It’s not just a cubicle — it has a desk, but it also has walls and a door — which was really good for some of our folks who are in medical billing and needed to be able to lock everything up and have it secure.
I think we’ve only had one person move out in all of 2021. Everybody else moved around, moved to bigger spaces. Then we went from 20 to 35 businesses. Several are in the home healthcare industry.
There were people, primarily women who had been working for larger companies. As one of them told me, she sat down and she listed her strengths and her weaknesses. She thought about what her future was going to look like and she decided that she was her greatest strength and her rapport with the people that she had been working with. [She] thought, “If I’m going to work this hard for somebody, I’m going to work this hard for myself.” What she told me was that the corporation that she had worked for, throughout the entire pandemic, not one time did somebody pick up the phone and say, “Hey, how are you doing? Can we help you?” And she thought, “That’s not the kind of business I want to be in.”
So, she moved in in the middle of the fall and she has now hired an office manager to help her run her business. Several of the companies that have come in the last six months have already grown to the point where they’ve hired maybe one person more, or five or six people more depending on the business.
Bell: Thank you for telling the story of the thriving small businesses that SiMT and the Gould Business Incubator have helped create. I’ll note that this expansion occurred during the ongoing pandemic.
What are your one to two biggest lessons learned over the course of time, particularly over the course of the pandemic, as the business incubator has expanded?
Gardner: We became more open minded about the kinds of businesses that come in. Several years ago, we had Mary Kay women selling makeup. They both plan to be regional directors and I said, “Well, what does that mean?” And they said, “Well, that means that each of us would have 100 other women that we would be helping underneath us.” They are entrepreneurs, too.
I had to relearn what it means to be an entrepreneur. We’re not all going to start Google. There are lots of people here who have great ideas.
Also, the folks who are in the incubator are our best promoters. Some folks say, “I came and helped somebody move furniture and that’s how I learned about this space and this is what my business does.”
Bell: Thank you so much.
What successes do you see on the horizon for SiMT and the Gould Business Incubator?
Gardner: We’re at an interesting point, I think, here at the college and at the SiMT and the incubator. We have a new president, Dr. Jermaine Ford, who came on board in October. He has a vision for the college and for how we can better support this area. In Florence, in particular, we’re doing a lot of strategic planning. How we can help support the area of Florence and the surrounding communities is a big part of his plan.
Florence has grown tremendously. There have been some people with great foresight, like the people who helped get the SiMT off the ground. Those who have businesses in downtown Florence have totally revitalized the downtown Florence area, and it’s starting to bleed over into other areas.
In Florence County, FDTC — Florence-Darlington [Technical College] – has partnered with Francis Marion University and the Darla Moore Foundation. There’s a new facility called The Continuum with about 500 students doing dual enrollment, which is huge for our area. Any time you’ve got 500 high school kids on a college campus taking credit in a region this size, that’s huge.
Bell: Thank you for explaining that.
I know that you also serve Darlington County. Do you see any successes on the horizon in expanding to surrounding rural communities and small towns?
Gardner: Back in November, I got a call from the City of Darlington. They have a new mayor and he’s been in about, I guess, almost two years now [and they have] a new city manager. They’ve gotten some grant funding from the federal government. It’s going to help them do some revitalization and some road and sewer and all those kinds of improvements in downtown Darlington.
A few other things, interesting things have happened. An older lady in the Darlington community passed away and, unbeknownst to anyone who knew her, she had amassed about an $11 million fortune as an administrative assistant at Sunoco Products. She left with $4 million to the Darlington County Historical Society. So, they’re going to build a big new facility — big for downtown Darlington — to tell the genealogy and the history of this area, which goes back to pre-Revolutionary War times. That’ll be a boost for the downtown Darlington area.
We’re also having conversations with the city and the mayor and Darlington downtown revitalization folks and some local politicians about expanding our incubator and having one in downtown Darlington. There are a couple of different properties. It’s very much in the dream stage right now. But I was told to dream big, so I’m running with that. It’ll be exciting.
I would love to have another facility just because I need to help some more people. There are people here who are on the waiting list. Also, if we were in downtown Darlington, it would provide more foot traffic, I think, then then our current location does. And, if it was right around downtown, there are people that might come in who would never come here. If you’ve never been on a college campus or no one in your family has ever set foot on a college campus, it can be very intimidating.
So, I think if you were to walk into an incubator, maybe as a high school student, have a part-time afternoon job where you were working for a small business that was just getting started, you would learn about entrepreneurship. But you would also learn about what it takes to run a business and how to be a part of a team and all those things, those intangibles that help you as you get older.
Bell: I love your storytelling and understanding how the community as a whole has played a part in the successes of Florence-Darlington Technical College’s SiMT and the Gould Business Incubator. It’s clear how your organization has fostered the development of small businesses in South Carolina. These will be the job creators of the future.
Tressa, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you today.
Gardner: Thank you so much, Erica. I appreciate it. It’s good to talk with you.