Spark - Rural Community Incubator and Resource Hub

Greensboro, VT

Contact Name
Ceilidh Galloway-Kane
Project Dates
September 2017 - present
Workshop Leader
Creative Communities Exchange (CCX) 2019
Tags
Business Planning, Networking, Marketing, Entrepreneurship, Design, Workforce Development
Spark is a project of WonderArts seeking to strengthen the economy of the Northeast Kingdom, of Vermont, by providing artists, entrepreneurs, and small businesses with access to equipment, technology, education, opportunities they might not have otherwise. The major barriers to success in this community are connectivity, availability of classes/services, and isolation. Spark functions as a hub that supports connection, collaboration, mentorship, education, access to business resources, coworking, and equipment.
Project Goals
What were the specific goals of this creative economy project? Describe the community development challenge or opportunity that your project was designed to address:
WonderArts chose to begin this work with a business incubator/accelerator rather than a makerspace because, while a makerspace would be valuable, there are already many makers in our rural community who had their own space. What was heard loud and clear was that businesses needed access, not to a kiln or a woodshop, but to a large format scanner, a powerful computer, a giclee quality printer, a class on website development, marketing consulting, basic business support, and each other. It wasn’t just artists in need of these resources but farmers, shop owners, architects, engineers, cheesemakers, and more. From this process the goals and objective of Spark were formed:
Create a facility where small and emerging businesses can benefit from having access to high-tech equipment, design software, fiber internet, and technology.
Foster a culture where entrepreneurs and community members come together to ‘incubate’ ideas, learn from each other, and build a network of support.
Support and grow the local economy by providing opportunities and connection to new and existing resources that support small business growth.
Provide workforce development and resilience through workshops, trainings, and one-on-one consulting.
Grow regional retention rates for young people growing up and coming to the Northeast Kingdom.
Engage high school aged students through work-based learning opportunities at spark including internships, education, and connections to professionals in the community.

In July of 2018 spark opened a beta-membership phase bringing 25 individuals and business together to use the space, test systems, lead classes, and evaluate how this project can effectively meet the various needs of entrepreneurs in our rural community. This group represents the diversity of our community by giving a voice to individuals, small businesses, artists, high school students, and professionals in the field. Having evaluated this stage we are thrilled to be opening the next tier of membership in January of 2019.
If the goals change over time, please describe how:
These goals have been developed throughout the past year. We believe that they capture this stage of the project and the attainable outcomes as well as the longer term impacts. We will continue to measure and evaluate goals throughout the project.
Who was involved in this project and what did they do? (be sure to include the partners from outside of the creative sector and how local voices were included):
In the fall of 2017, we brought together over 75 community members together to discuss how a project like this could support our rural economy. Artists, farmers, designers, educators, architects, CEO’s, changemakers, techies, and students brainstormed major barriers to their success and how a project like this would strengthen the economy, creativity, and innovation of our region. From this meeting a core group of stakeholders formed to develop the project. This group includes artists, engineers, techies, students, inventors, teachers, and WonderArts Staff. These stakeholders have worked together to develop systems, research, visit existing projects, develop membership, arrange the space, and more. Since the opening of our beta-phase we have served over 80 people from all around the Northeast Kingdom from age 7 to 90.
How does this project relate to a larger community development strategy?
This project began after years of both community conversation and regional interest in how incubator and co working spaces could boost the rural economy. From a local level all the way up to state-wide there are larger strategies and interest in how we build remote working opportunities in rural Vermont. Partnering with a wide variety of community members and businesses of all sizes has enabled us to gain perspective on all of the different needs of our community.
What projects or places, if any, inspired your approach to this creative economy project?
These days it seems like buzz words like "co-working", "maker space", and/or "business accelerator" are on many creatives minds. We have seen how projects like this have brought life to North Burlington, Rutland, Bradford, and now the Northeast Kingdom. We see our project as a hybrid. Early on we decided that in order to serve our community we had to provide a little bit of everything because no business is at the same stage or in the same sector. We were also inspired by our partnership with the Center for an Agricultural Economies Food Venture Center and how we could provide support not only for artists and entrepreneurs but also farmers and the food industry.
Project Specifics
Please list the steps taken to implement the project:
Thanks to support from USDA Rural Business Development we have already secured funding to meet our objectives for equipment and technology resources. We have installed Fiber internet (we are one of two public organizations in our area to do this), 3D printers, a large format printer, Vinyl Cutter, state of the art computers and software, work-stations, product photography station, and more. We have found that what our community members really need is a network of support at every stage of their business. From feeling confident in the ability to start a business, to building, launching, and growing.
In January we will launch the opening of the project to the greater community offering more classes, one-on-one business consulting, student opportunities, and more. To complete this project we have been fortunate to have grant support for equipment and the volunteer support of a wide variety of stakeholders. The project started with a steering committee that developed priorities, purchasing and installing of equipment, testing systems with a beta-membership system, evaluating the beta membership, and then opening the space.
If the project steps changed over time, please describe how:
The project steps have remained the same over the past year.
Obstacles
What were your major obstacles for the completion of the project?
The major obstacle has been developing the project for a small and rural community. There are less than 5,000 people within 20 miles of Greensboro and many of them have barriers to access including transportation, networking, and business resources. Throughout the beta-phase we found that it wasn't just community members who needed these resources but people beyond our towns. Our classes have brought together people from over 50 miles away to have a computer fixed, learn out grants, or get business help. This has indicated to us just how much of a need there is for a network of support and space just as this.
Who or what was instrumental in overcoming these obstacles?
We couldn't have made this project happen without the 20 key volunteers who advised us, taught classes, held open hours, and brought energy and perspective to the project.
What top three suggestions would you give to others attempting a similar project?
1. Determine what it is that your community needs. Surveys are fine but having real conversations with people makes for a deeper understanding of need and greater opportunities for trust.
2. Do your research. Visit co-working spaces, maker spaces, incubator, for profits. See what works and what doesn't.
3. Ask for help. None of us can do everything and many of these spaces have been created before. Ask for templates, advice, business plans, computer/tech help, volunteers, etc.
Project Impact
How has this project strategically connected arts and cultural activities to social, economic, and cultural issues in your community? What is different in your community as a result of this project?
Over the past four months volunteers have lead classes in grant writing, branding, 3D design, website development, computer repair, and more. With little advertising these classes have drawn participants from beyond our Greensboro community including Derby, Glover, Johnson, Waterbury, and St. Johnsbury. In addition to classes we have offered free one-on-one business consulting which has provided a dozen community members with invaluable support and advice to move their work forward. Already we have seen how this project provides a place where young people in particular feel connected to their community, currently 50% of our members are under the age of 40 and many are young people who have relocated back to this community.

Beginning in January, we would like to be able to hire local consultants and professionals to lead more programs that support a variety of business needs, innovation, and technology. Our hope is to host 2 - 4 programs a week in four major categories: innovation (ex: 3D printing), creativity/design (ex: photography & photoshop), computer skills (ex:excel), and business (ex:website design, branding, quickbooks). These resources will be open to anyone in the community (including students) and will be free or reduced for members of the space. Programs will have a phenomenal impact on our economy by providing community members with applicable skills, self-confidence, resiliency, networks of support, and clear paths to growth. By not only celebrating but investing in local ideas we are contributing to the health and vibrancy of our communities.
Why do you consider the project successful, as related to your project goals above?
We have yet to evaluate a full year of the project but already we have opened a space, purchased necessary equipment and started bringing people together.
How did you measure this success or progress?
We will measure how much we do by the number of participants, number of members, number of community partners, amount and quality of equipment, and number of technical assistance opportunities. We will know how well the project has been successful by the number and percentage of members who attend classes, number and percent who teach classes, number and percent of community partners who provide support, number and percent of programs held at schools and at our program space. We will know who is better off when businesses report economic growth, when jobs are created, when there is innovation, when members report having a better network of support, and when businesses and entrepreneurs have more access to broadband, equipment, and technical assistance.
To complete the tasks and activities for this project we are working with highly experienced contractors as well as a diverse community stakeholder advisory committee, consisting of businesses, entrepreneurs, and students. This clear need not only in our immediate community but throughout our region has solidified the importance of this project and our request for funding.
Please describe any unexpected impacts:
As described above we have been amazed by the need and draw for the project. From the beginning we had a sense and projection about who we would serve but we never imagined that so many families, students, adults, and seniors would be so interested in learning how to use equipment, taking classes, and coming to Greensboro to connect.
CCX Workshop Handout