Since departure of one business, space sits idle

Published 12:10 am Sunday, January 23, 2011

NATCHEZ — Katie McCarstle says owning her own business has given her a unique opportunity when it comes to her work.

“A lot of people can’t go to work every day and say they love what they’re doing. I’ve been in business 17 years, and I love (my work),” McCarstle said.

McCarstle worked in the tourism industry for years, but in 1995 she made a career change by opening Katie’s Ladies dress shop, with the help of a seven-year, small business loan from the Southwest Planning and Development District.

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“I was starting out a new business and they gave you a lower rate to get started. They were very easy to work with and very accommodating,” McCarstle said.

Small business loans are one of a few initiatives available locally to take an idea and make it into a reality.

Attracting big industry is certainly a priority of Natchez and Adams County, but making it easy for small businesses to start up is also a goal, local leaders said.

Residents remember Cora’s Cake in Jar as a small, homegrown business that was successful in exporting a uniquely Natchez product across the country.

Cora’s, which literally baked cakes inside a Mason jar, operated in the basement of the former Margaret Martin School building. The business got its start through a business incubator setup inside the school by the City of Natchez.

Adams County Board of Supervisors President Darryl Grennell said he remembers the success of Cora’s Cake in a Jar as an entrepreneurial success story.

“It was a Natchez product that would end up all over the country,” Grennell said. “It’s good to have different types of companies in a community. It puts Natchez on the map.”

For years, the city has allowed small business entrepreneurs to rent space in the city-owned building for minimal costs, allowing the businesses to have an easier time launching.

“They pay a minimum amount of rent to the city, $200 or $300 a month to help them get started. If (the business) outgrows (the space) then they go somewhere else,” City Clerk Donnie Holloway said.

Holloway said the program still exists and the city would welcome any takers, but most would-be entrepreneurs are unaware that the space is available at a discount.

Holloway said he received one inquiry last year about the space in Margaret Martin. The former Natchez-Adams County Economic Development Authority apparently directed the inquiry to City Hall, Holloway said.

Holloway said the prospective entrepreneur toured the property but ultimately decided the space was inadequate for his plans.

The lack of awareness about the option applies not only to residents but also to city leaders.

Mayor Jake Middleton said he was not sure if the city still had the option of renting out space Margaret Martin building and directed inquiries to Holloway.

A few aldermen interviewed also did not know if the space was available.

Middleton said a business incubator was an idea definitely worth reviewing, however.

“I think it’s something we could definitely look into,” Middleton said.

The Copiah-Lincoln Community College Small Business Development Center could provide tips on names of people who might want to rent the property, Middleton said.

A cake has not been baked in a jar in the basement at Margaret Martin for a few years since the company was sold and changed hands twice, but shelves stacked with rows of jars and spatulas are still visible from basement windows.

Holloway said the city is currently in the process of cleaning out the basement of Margaret Martin.

McCann’s Window and Screen was also a product of the business incubator, a business that is no longer operating.

Grennell said many people in town with good ideas could benefit from an incubator program like the one at Margaret Martin if they knew about it.

“A lot of people have great ideas but need that start-up facility to serve as a place for them to operate from,” Grennell said.

Other opportunities

A business incubator coordinated through Alcorn State University School of Business has existed at 300 Franklin St. since 2004.

Manager Brent Bourland said a few businesses have been in and out of the facility over the years, and a new director, Allan Terrell, was hired three or four months ago to get the project going again.

“There’s a renewed revitalization process going on right now to give (the incubator) a higher profile, and that’s what Allan is here to do,” Bourland said.

Terrell works in the Systems Research Institute, which is a division of the department of advanced technology in the School of Agricultures Research Extension and Applied Sciences, or AREA.

Terrell said he has been working to get infrastructure set up in the facility to prepare it for a start-up business.

“A high technology incubator is what (the incubator) is trying to pull in, but it will hopefully be there to help any small business start up,” Terrell said.

The incubator is the brainchild of the Advanced Technologies Department Chairman Kwabena Agyepong, Terrell said.

Terrell said those interested in information about the incubator can contact Alcorn’s advanced technologies department at 601-870-2777.

The incubator is partially funded through grants secured by Alcorn, Terrell said.

Small business loans

For those who have an idea and need funding, small business loan programs are available through the Southwest Planning and Development District.

Southwest Planning and Development District Director Wirt Peterson said the loan programs were initiated by the legislature approximately 10 years ago.

In recent years, applications for the loans have been sparser than in the past.

“We would like to get more applications in, but due to fact that we’re in a recession it is not the best climate right now,” Peterson said.

He said a lack of awareness of the loan programs might also be responsible for the low number of applicants.

Some of the referrals come from banks, Peterson said.

The maximum amount of the loan is $250,000, but the applicant must secure 50 percent of the funding for the project though another source, such as a bank loan or other capital, Peterson said.

Loans are available for minorities, which includes females, and to non-minorities.

In 2010, Peterson said he received one application for a minority small business loan and four applications for nonminority business loans.

“We would be happy to look at any application for anyone who wants to start or expand a business,” Peterson said.

Getting a business plan

One of the requirements for acquiring a businesses loan through the Southwest Planning and Development District is to provide a specific business plan.

In Natchez, free resources are readily available to offer help drafting such plan.

Jeff Waller of the Small Business Association at Co-Lin, said he and his staff can offer help writing business plans, as well as help with management issues and financial analysis.

“We help them and talk to them throughout the process. General consensus is that people are very happy with our services,” Waller said.

Because the program is funded through the state in conjunction with Co-Lin, it cannot serve Louisiana. But Waller said Concordia Parish residents can use the services if they plan on starting a business in Natchez.

He said the association does not have a large enough budget to advertise, so many do not know it is available.

“I have been classified as the best kept secret in Southwest Mississippi,” Waller said.