How do you support entrepreneurs in the urban core? It starts with connections

How do you build a thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem where business owners of all backgrounds have access to knowledge and opportunities?

For Trois Hart and Cozey Baker with the Fort Wayne Urban Enterprise Association (UEA), it starts with helping entrepreneurs make connections—whether it's connecting them to a physical space, other support organizations, or access to funding and tax savings.

As northeast Indiana puts increased emphasis on developing a support system for entrepreneurs, UEA is poised to connect these innovators on a regional level, particularly those building businesses in historically disadvantaged areas.

Understanding the organization's role in the community today starts with going back to its founding, says Hart, who serves as the Association's Director.

When the UEA was formed in 1984, it was charged with management of an Urban Enterprise Zone, which at the time was a 3.9 square mile area along the Pennsylvania Railroad.

She explains this area was targeted because it was the most impacted by the closing of the International Harvester plant in 1982. About 2,200 workers were affected by the truck assembly plant closing, according to a press release issued by the company in September 1982.

In other words, it was the end of an era, and it was clear something needed to be done for the sake of the local economy.

“(City officials) wanted to encourage reinvestment in that area,” she says. “So they designated the zone offering tax incentives to businesses to locate and grow there.”

Over the years, the organization’s work has manifested itself in physical business incubator with a 50,000-square foot building at 1830 Wayne Trace in Southeast Fort Wayne.

According to Hart, the Enterprise Center has 13 professional offices, 10 industrial units, plus 24/7 security and shared administrative services available to its tenants. Its fees are designed to meet the demands of often cash-strapped startups.

“It is (a great deal) because market prices are about $5-$6 dollars per square foot, and we're substantially less than that,” Hart says. “So right now, with the strong economy, we're having businesses who've been here moving out. Smaller businesses are moving up, and we're opening up smaller spaces.”

Along with providing office space for startups, a second part of the UEA's mission is to reach out to manufacturing/industrial businesses in a designated geographic area, now known as SEED or the Summit City Entrepreneur and Enterprise District.

The UEA is tasked with economic development via building and maintaining the area's entrepreneurial ecosystem. In other words, it’s "planting a seed" for future generations of business owners to flourish in Southeast Fort Wayne while supporting the existing community.

As a quasi-governmental organization, it's focused on the future while staying true to its original mission, and over the years, the district itself has grown in more ways than one.

Pro-economic development legislation that took effect Jan. 1, 2018, expanded the district to 6.9 square miles. Businesses located there pay participation fees (a fraction of their savings) that get reinvested into the district.

“They become a member or participant, if you will, and they pay 20 percent of that savings back to the association,” she says. “And that's the funding that keeps the program moving forward."

Hart says while the UEA has positively impacted many businesses over the years, they’ve still got some work to do. Some business owners don’t know they are located in the zone, or that they are eligible for these financial incentives. It could also be a matter of completing the necessary paperwork.

That’s why she has tapped Baker, a businessman and connector in Southeast Fort Wayne, to be a point of contact for the organization.

As one of the founding members of Fort Wayne's Black Chamber of Commerce, Baker has compiled a list of 800 businesses in the SEED district, sorted by profile. 

“We want to go in, have a conversation with them, and just talk about what changes or what advantages that will have an impact on the company,” Baker explains. “There is information that they could benefit from, but they never have (received).”

Cabin Fever Coneys, located at 930 Goshen Ave., is a great example of the UEA's work in action. Hart says the owners, Linda Neuhaus and Kristy Campbell, came to them for advice before opening the business. They purchased an empty lot, paved it, and built a novelty themed drive-thru restaurant on site. (The hot dog joint is located in a log cabin themed structure.)

If you ask Hart, these bold entrepreneurs made a strategic investment in the future, and it can pay dividends. 

“When the (property) gets assessed, the assessed value is going to go up, and they won't have to pay that increased tax for 10 years," she explains. "Of course, over time, that tax comes down anyway, so that's a wonderful benefit to businesses. They can use that money to hire more employees or whatever it is they need.”

Speaking of needs, Hart says SEED hopes to launch an online platform, which will serve as a central hub of resources in the region for local entrepreneurs seeking help. Hart says it’s not uncommon for her to meet with small business owners and find that they’re unaware of such local resources like the Farnsworth Fund, The NIIC, Start Fort Wayne, and other opportunities available to them.

Her vision is to change this landscape, so that “all anybody has to know is one (web)site that can connect you to all the other (resources),” she says.

Even so, she emphasizes that she doesn’t want to compete with other entrepreneurial-focused organizations around Fort Wayne. Instead, she wants to support them—what she refers to as a “developer" role in the growing ecosystem.

“It’s not about this building. It's not about that footprint. It's not about the business education," Hart says. "It's connecting people.”

Read more articles by Lauren Caggiano.

Lauren Caggiano is a Fort Wayne-based writer. A 2007 graduate of the University of Dayton, she returned to Northeast Indiana to pursue a career. In the past 12 years she has worked in journalism, public relations, marketing, and digital media. She currently writes for several local, regional, and national publications.
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