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Boise's Greenhouse ready to open

City incubator clearing final hurdles

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Mark Twain joked, "Everybody complains about the weather, but nobody does anything about it." Who knew Twain was also a world-class economist? No truer words could be said about small businesses in 2010.

The U.S. Department of Labor reports that an estimated 97 percent of private firms in Idaho are considered small businesses.

It's not too difficult to connect the dots. Small business moves the needle on Idaho's economy: employment, income and gross domestic product. Follow small business, follow the money.

If someone is running for office this year, they're saying that the answer to our economic woes is small business.

Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter: "Small business is really one of the biggest ingredients in our mix." (July 29)

Keith Allred, Democratic challenger for governor: "We need to unbridle the small business community." (March 1)

Rep. Walt Minnick (D): "Small businesses will drive a recovery." (June 15)

Republican First Congressional district challenger Raul Labrador touts himself as a successful small businessman.

Yet Idaho has had three straight years of declines in the number of new businesses filed with the Secretary of State. The most recent small business index from Zions Bank indicates a damper on Idaho's small business sector and "less favorable conditions for Idaho's small businesses."

And for all the political bluster--with apologies to Mr. Twain--nobody seems to be doing much about it.

That is, with a few exceptions.

Case in point: The WaterCooler, brainchild of Boise developer Mark Rivers, is the birthplace of jobs. If its walls could talk, we'd hear about ideas: some good, some not so good. But in each instance, the centerpiece was growing a small business in order to employ more people.

"Jobs are ultimately important to us," Rivers told BW. "If a couple of guys come in and say they intend to grow their company times 10 in the next few years, but remain low in head count, we're probably not interested. But if they're going to have modest, steady growth and add staff, that interests us more."

Walk through the WaterCooler today, and you'll see small businesses specializing in everything from bicycle cables to wind energy. And they're all pretty driven.

"Two Fridays ago, the alarm went off in the middle of the night," said Rivers. "When I got there with the police, I found that one of the tenants had a new employee who wanted to work through the night. I was more proud than mad."

There are no immediate plans to expand the WaterCooler. Rivers said he's more interested in finding new capital for small businesses or exploring what he calls the pre-WaterCooler stage.

His ears must have been burning when BW talked with Cece Gassner, Boise's assistant for economic development.

"Companies here might actually graduate into the WaterCooler," Gassner said.

The Greenhouse is a unique partnership between the City of Boise and the Idaho Small Business Development Center, which is located at Boise State. The new incubator will welcome its four premiere tenants by the end of August, with a grand opening scheduled for September and a full complement of 10 tenants by the end of the year.

"The Greenhouse is probably for a company that's a couple clicks past the idea stage," said Gassner, "but a couple clicks before they're ready to grow without a lot of hand-holding."

Another major difference between the WaterCooler and Greenhouse will be thematic. Most of the new businesses in the Greenhouse are expected to be green. Tenants may include renewable energy developers, energy and water conservation services and organic or natural products.

"But if they're not green, they won't necessarily be turned away," said Gassner. "It's a preference. The final decision will be with the SBDC."

The City of Boise will basically be the landlord of the property, which is about half a block from City Hall. SBDC will pay $1 a year for rent, and then operate the 3,500- square-foot building at 520 W. Idaho St. The businesses will be sub-tenants for $150-$300 a month.

But it appears as if the Greenhouse's windows needed a little more polishing than originally planned. The center was hoped to open in early 2010. Then it was June. Gassner said it will definitely be ready to go in a couple of weeks. The delay? First the city needed to finalize its agreement with SBDC. Then, the building had to become a little more ... well, green. The HVAC system is being upgraded, and single-pane windows are being replaced.

But ultimately, the Greenhouse and WaterCooler are all about jobs.

"If you look at a business that doesn't go into an incubator, it has about a 45 percent chance of surviving," said Gassner. "If you look at a similar business that does spend time in an incubator, its chance of thriving is closer to 75 or even 80 percent. It's a remarkable difference."

And for all the stimulus funds, proposed state and federal legislation, and certainly for all the political hay, investment in an incubator may have the best bang for the buck in today's economy.

"The return is significant," said Gassner. "Many more high-paying jobs can be generated for far less public money than, say, a public works project."

And the genius may be in the simplicity. Both the WaterCooler and the Greenhouse have very basic applications and include easy exit strategies for businesses that fail.

"What I can do is help connect the dots," said Rivers.

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