Gwinnett hopes to jump start job growth with entrepreneur center

A conference room sits in the middle of the Gwinnett Entrepreneur Center in Lawrenceville on Wednesday, June 30, 2021. The center has been in the works for almost five years and plans to open by October. Entrepreneurs interested can fill out an application to be considered. (Christine Tannous / christine.tannous@ajc.com)
Caption
A conference room sits in the middle of the Gwinnett Entrepreneur Center in Lawrenceville on Wednesday, June 30, 2021. The center has been in the works for almost five years and plans to open by October. Entrepreneurs interested can fill out an application to be considered. (Christine Tannous / christine.tannous@ajc.com)

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The door to the Gwinnett Entrepreneur Center was unlocked on a late June afternoon, so Lidya Carpenter walked in.

That’s been happening whenever there are cars in the parking lot, the center’s leaders said, though membership applications aren’t live until today and it will be more than a month before the building is open.

Like others, Carpenter was curious about the new Gwinnett facility. A licensed massage therapist, she rents space near the Mall of Georgia for Lililomi Massage, but would like to open something bigger.

“It would be my first time actually having a small business,” Carpenter said. “I have a spa in mind, I have a name. I’m writing down financial goals.”

The entrepreneur center is designed to help people like Carpenter, who have an idea — or a small business — and need help getting it to the next step. Though the finishing touches are still being put on the converted day care center near Lawrenceville’s downtown, more than 500 people have already signed up for email alerts just to find out when applications are available, said Stephanie Sokenis, the center’s manager.

The center was originally slated to open a year ago, but the coronavirus pandemic caused construction and other delays. Now, Gwinnett Economic Development Manager Mark Farmer said, it’s needed more than ever.

Some businesses, Farmer said, barely squeaked by over the past year and a half. They may need help getting back on their feet. Other people, who lost jobs or decided to change careers over the course of the pandemic, may need help refining their ideas or putting plans into action.

“We’ve seen a spike in people starting small businesses, reevaluating their lives,” Sokenis said. “It doesn’t make them any more ready for it.”

When it opens, the 6,000-square-foot entrepreneur center will have areas that range from co-working space for businesses to private offices for up to three people. It has conference rooms, a training room and private telephone booths. And it has an outdoor area where people can take a break or network, a kitchen and dining area and chairs set up for people to have impromptu gatherings. There are also secure mailboxes.

The center is meant to help people create businesses in Gwinnett County that will lease space and hire workers in the community, Farmer said. As such, all members will have a graduation plan to help get out of the county space within three years, after training and mentorship.

The center is open to Gwinnett residents who will pay between $30 a month for services in the first year — for members who don’t need office space but who want to take advantage of the available services — to $400, for that private office for three. Some low-income programs that cut the rate in half are also available.

Farmer said the point isn’t to make money for the county, which has budgeted nearly $2 million for the center, much of it from federal grants. The fees instead create buy-in from entrepreneurs and get them used to paying for services.

It’s appealing to Matt Hoffman, the president of IT company Frontline Technology, who launched in 2018 but planned to go bigger in 2020. With the pandemic, he said, the rebrand “didn’t have as much traction as I hoped.”

Charlotte Nash, the former Gwinnett commission chairman who helped spearhead the project, said she thinks the center is one way to tackle the increase in poverty in the county, by helping people get businesses off the ground. Nicole Love Hendrickson, the current chairwoman of the county commission, said the center will help people find ways to transform themselves and Gwinnett.

“By having this resource in our county, we can help improve standards of living and reshape our communities in so many positive ways,” she said.

The county library system also has a program to help businesses get off the ground. Called the New Start Entrepreneurship Incubator, it’s funded through a $128,000 grant and targets the formerly incarcerated, who often have trouble getting traditional jobs.

Adam Pitts, the branch manager for the Lawrenceville branch of the Gwinnett County Public Library, said participants in the first cohort, which ended last month, started a landscaping company, a moving company and a restaurant business.

Both programs use community partnerships to enhance the connections participants might make naturally. Georgia Gwinnett College is a partner in the entrepreneur center.

While many small businesses fail, Farmer said the center will be a success if the failure rate for participants is lower than the average. And maybe, he said, a new startup will be born that will grow into a powerhouse.

“We have big ambitions,” he said. “An incubator’s not a building. You can’t just offer space and that’s the end of it.”

To apply, see https://form.jotform.com/211684831421149