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FRIDAY, MAY 12, 2006

Is the incubator doomed?
Decatur officials pondering options after director, 3 board members resign posts

By Martin Burkey
DAILY Staff Writer 340-2441

Decatur officials are trying to figure out what to do with their business incubator following the resignations this past month of its director and three advisory board members.

The incubator just completed its move from Bank Street Northeast to Fourth Avenue Southeast earlier this year following the completion of additional industrial and office space for start-up businesses. But the City Council in its 2006 budget reduced incubator director Jim Gregory's hours and discussed zeroing out incubator funding in a year or two.

Gregory told THE DAILY he submitted his resignation a month ago to pursue other business interests.

Board member and former chairman Ron Earley said he resigned because he'd been on the board 15 years and "I felt it was time for somebody else with new ideas and new programs to get on the board."

Board member George Hansberry couldn't be reached for comment.

The third board member to resign, Bennie Pointer, however, acknowledged frustration that the council reduced funding for the incubator without any discussion with the advisory board.

"When they came out with the budget and salary for the director, they doomed it to fail," he said. "What kind of person can you get for that kind of salary? It may be those budget cuts had to happen."

Councilman Ray Metzger, liaison to the incubator, said the space is less than half full and suggested it may be time for the city to close it.

The city could keep the space, retain a building manager and rent it to businesses with none of the consulting services commonly offered by incubators, Metzger said.

"If we get somebody like we had and pay a pretty good, high salary, he may be able to bring in a few more people, but I don't think so," Metzger said.

"It's always been a loss. The people that wanted to do these businesses would find a little place and do it anyway."

Instead, Metzger added, the city should move its Engineering and Planning departments now in an annex building, which rents for $60,000 annually, to the incubator it already owns.

Animal shelter proposal

The council is mulling a proposal to move those departments to the current animal shelter building in the Public Works compound on Central Parkway and renovate an existing building adjacent to Wilson Morgan Park for a new animal shelter.

Metzger said he'd rather sell that land for a new restaurant.

Board member Charles Kirby, appointed by Metzger, said lack of communication by the council was a problem for some board members.

He said the remaining incubator board members probably need to call a meeting and formally ask the council what it wants to do with the incubator and the board.

"I don't oppose Ray's thought process," he said. "However, we need a direction from the city before we take that step. Either the city wants an incubator or it doesn't."

Community Development Director Michelle Gilliam Jordan, who oversees the incubator, said the council discussed filling the job with someone who also would write grants for the city.

The council doesn't have a job description for a new incubator boss.

Nor does it have any candidates for the job, she said. Until the city gets a new director, though, it will make sure incubator tenants have access to the business consulting services they were promised when they signed their leases, she added.

Council President Billy Jackson said the council cut the incubator's 2006 budget because it wasn't convinced it was getting an appropriate return on its investment.

New possibilities

When Jackson ran into Gregory a few weeks before he resigned, Gregory mentioned several new possibilities for bringing in business and generating more revenue, Jackson recalled.

"I told him if he were able to do that, the council would look at that," Jackson said.

"I had no doubt the council would look at working with that concept favorably. He's done a good job for the city with the time and resources that he had. I don't know that the entire concept was truly working to the extent we expect it to."

Jackson added that he wants to continue the incubator, possibly using a city grant writer able to do double duty.

As for Metzger's proposal to move city departments from the annex to the incubator, Jackson said he's willing to consider it depending on what the council decides to do with the incubator.

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