Dalton may hatch business incubator

James Tyson "Ty" Ross
photo James Tyson "Ty" Ross

What is a business incubator?

Not a physical location, per se. It's a program that's designed to nurture the development of entrepreneurial companies through business-support resources such as coaching, financial support, services, networking and physical space. About Dalton's Business Incubation Community Readiness Assessment The study, completed in October 2012, involved confidential one-on-one interviews with 46 local entrepreneurs and community leaders. Here's a little of what it revealed. Greater Dalton's strengths: * Desire to create jobs and diversify local economy beyond floorcoverings * Strong skills in manufacturing and production as the Carpet Capital of the world * Available workforce with above average unemployment Greater Dalton's weaknesses: * Poorly educated population. 24/7WallStreet.com ranked Dalton the second least educated city in America, based upon the share of residents with college degrees, median income and poverty rates. * Competition among flooring-industry companies could break down entrepreneurial-support networks, which require collaboration. * Workforce is skilled in flooring-industry jobs, but branching beyond that could present challenge and require re-training

Dalton wants a slice of today's startup dream.

The Georgia city known famously for its floor-covering companies plans to launch a feasibility study to figure out what it would take to build and run a business incubator.

First, it must hear back on whether it gets a $40,390 grant through the Appalachian Regional Commission. That could happen any day now, but city and local business officials say it's more likely word will come close to summer. If it gets the grant, Dalton would put $17,310 toward the study, which is expected to last for two years, beginning in July.

The push for a business incubator was born from an economic development initiative a few years ago, said Dalton City Administrator Ty Ross.

The Dalton Chamber of Commerce worked with the Georgia Institute of Technology to look at whether it made sense for the 34,000-resident city to have an incubator, which would also serve larger Whitfield County whose population is about 105,000.

The research showed an incubator is a good idea. The October 2012 "Business Incubation Community Readiness Assessment" looked at economic factors and business trends. It gave the pursuit of an incubator a "conditional go," noting that the Dalton team should move with "patience and caution."

"It will be of the utmost importance to obtain buy-in and commitments of support from private sector leaders and sponsors, the public sector and local academia institutions in order for the program to survive long-term," the study said.

The next phase of research, the one that would be funded by the grant, will be more specific, Ross said.

It would nail down what kinds of programs the incubator could offer, what it would cost to build and run, where it should be located, who would staff it -- the "things you really need to know, if you're going to try to execute something," Ross said.

Professors at Dalton State College's business school are expected to author the study.

The city has a long history of business startups when it comes to the flooring industry, said Dr. Larry Johnson, a professor of economics and the dean of Dalton State College's business school.

New companies that succeed create "quite a bit of multiplier effect," Johnson said. The flooring industry, for example, created thousands and thousands of jobs, he said.

Plus, there would be synergy between an incubator and the college, and that would benefit the city. Dalton wants to see placement of graduates from the school in the community, Ross said.

"If 200 people graduate from the business school, and those 200 people move elsewhere, that's not great," Ross said. "If someone graduates with a business degree and has a business idea, a business incubator could help them."

The Georgia Tech study noted that it might be tough for the Dalton area to ride the innovation wave.

"There is some uncertainty over maintaining community buy-in for the long term, the potential of low deal flow through the incubator, and the ability to attract entrepreneurial talent to the community," the study's executive summary said.

Still, the city should try, local leaders said.

"Our board of directors is very interested in the program ... and encouraging students to stay in Dalton and be entrepreneurial here," said Veronica French-Rollins, director of the Downtown Dalton Development Authority.

Nearby business incubators are in Chattanooga and Cleveland, Tenn. Chattanooga's incubator is one of the biggest in the nation, both in square footage and number of startups it supports.

Contact staff writer Mitra Malek at mmalek@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6406. Follow her on Twitter @MitraMalek.