Lake Martin has always been known for recreation, and now the Alexander City Chamber of Commerce is also making it a place for incubation.

In addition to being home to the chamber’s offices, the Lake Martin Innovation Center is a business incubator providing low-cost office space and support to young businesses.

The chamber moved into the former bank data center in February 2017 with big plans for the large space. Chief among them was a dozen suites for startup companies to set up and grow in Alex City. Chamber officials visited other business incubators throughout the state to discover best practices.

“So far, so good,” said Ed Collari, president and CEO of the Alexander City Chamber of Commerce. “Being in a rural community, we faced our challenges. Most of the facilities we toured throughout the state are in the backyards of four-year institutions, so being here in Alex City in rural Alabama we definitely had our issues. But so far, a year and a half in, it’s been a very solid success.”

Collari said the visits to other incubators helped the chamber with its “R&D – ripoff and duplicate” plan. They learned that successful incubators bring in tenants that have expertise in law, information technology and accounting so that they become an in-house resource to other tenant companies.

Lake Martin Innovation Center is a small-town incubator aiming for big impact from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

Lee Williams opened an Alex City office for Birmingham’s Nowlin & Associates Wealth Management in the Innovation Center.

“They’ve done a great job at trying to keep overhead low for new businesses,” he said. “To be able to come into a facility like this and have the resources we have is really, really nice for a company that’s just starting up.”

Williams said the intimate setting at the Lake Martin Innovation Center helps bring tenants together.

A business incubator is uncommon in a small town without a university, but Alexander City has had a solid success with its Lake Martin Innovation Center. (contributed)

“It’s like a small family,” he said. “Even though we don’t necessarily work together, you almost feel like you do.”

Williams said he’s made good friends among the companies and chamber members.

“They’ve got a great group of tenants in here right now,” he said.

Having a business incubator program is uncommon in a town the size of Alex City, Williams noted.

“You could go to a lot of smaller towns and you’re not going to see anything like this. To be able to be a part of it is really special,” he said. “I think it was great timing and I think it’s something that for future new businesses is going to be a great stepping stone and a great platform for them to grow their businesses and get out into the community and be able to make a difference.”

Collari said Lake Martin is a key to the Innovation Center’s success. Not only does it offer the quality-of-life features that young entrepreneurs look for in a community, but it has an important resource that is not so obvious.

“Lake Martin is what we lean on,” Collari said. “We don’t have that four-year college, but what we do have is Lake Martin – not just the financial resources that surround the lake, but the retired executives, the CEOs or the vice presidents who have contacts that we’re able to lean on.”

Ed Collari, president and CEO of the Alexander City Chamber of Commerce, says the companies in the Lake Martin Innovation Center have created 50 jobs in the community since it opened last year. (contributed)

Collari said a group within the organization includes retired or semi-retired former executives who live on the lake and offer advice on starting, scaling or expanding businesses.

“We utilize those folks with our entrepreneurs to help them grow their business as well,” he said.

Since the Innovation Center opened, seven plus the chamber companies have located within the facility and four spots remain. Those companies range from professional services firms to the local Servpro operator. The businesses have created 50 jobs.

“It’s been a pretty solid success for our community, for new business, for entrepreneurs as well as for our existing chamber members who are also allowed access to this facility,” Collari said. “So, overall, a big win for Alex City.”

In addition to the eight full-time tenants, the Innovation Center has 40 individuals and businesses signed up for co-working space within the facility. Chamber members love using the space for meetings, events and the holiday party this past year.

For a flat monthly fee, tenants get access to the center’s receptionists, the information technology within the facility, utilities other than a telephone land-line, security, cleaning and free coffee.

In addition to Lake Martin, Collari said the small-town atmosphere of Alexander City is paying off for the entrepreneurs in the Innovation Center.

“With the amount of traffic that comes in here from members to business leaders to city officials, they’re able to make relationships, make contacts,” he said. “They know they’re supported.”

Other than the coffee, which can be a big expense for caffeine-fueled entrepreneurs, Collari said he wouldn’t change a thing.

“Overall, it’s probably exceeded our expectations,” Collari said.


Lake Martin Innovation Center tenant companies

Angela J. Hill, Attorney at Law: Attorney focusing on family law, estate planning and criminal defense with a primary focus on children’s advocacy.

Beyond Home Care: In-home, nonmedical caregiving service focused on keeping patients as active as possible in their homes to promote overall health and well-being.

Lee Williams – Nowlin & Associates Wealth Management: Investment, insurance planning and financial planning firm focused on leading clients into the new economy with savings, income, investing and legacy strategies that succeed in unpredictable market environments.

Lowden Street Capital: Private equity firm that focuses on helping rural small business owners find an exit for their business. In only its fifth month of operation, LSC portfolio companies have reached break even and begun generating a small level of profitability.

Servpro of Chilton, Coosa, Tallapoosa and Chambers counties: Water and fire damage restoration, mold remediation, storm damage restoration, cleaning services.

VuePoint Diagnostics: Mobile radiology and diagnostics designed to make patient examinations and treatment faster, easier and more cost-effective.

WisePoint LLC: Document capture, content management systems, portals/intranets and custom programming.

This article originally appeared in Shorelines magazine.

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