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McLean County explores more workspaces to help startup businesses

McLean County explores more workspaces to help startup businesses

This is Part 4 of WGLT’s weeklong series The Next Shift about workforce issues in McLean County. Coming Friday: The theater community in Bloomington-Normal wants a new business model to shift from volunteer help.

Frances Arenhalt of Bloomington learned bookkeeping when she was 13. Her accountant parents gave her their business ledgers to occupy her time that summer.

“I had the audacity to say I was bored,” she quipped.

Arenhalt has spent her entire career in finance. In 2021, she did what a lot of people did — she quit her job and opened her own business.

Frances Arenhalt

“It was around the time that people started having to go back to the office and a lot of people realized, ‘Hey, I don’t want to.’ For me, that was part of the reason. I’ve been home with my children and I don’t want to not be home with my children,” Arenhalt explained.

Arenhalt was part of a post-COVID surge in business growth in McLean County. Business applications in 2021 rose 71% from pre-pandemic levels according to U.S. Census data.

Arenhalt expected owning a business would be hard but didn’t realize how hard.

“I’m the marketing department, I’m my own finance department, I’m the art director, I’m the content creator, I’m the social media manager,” she said.

Arenhalt needed help and struggled to find it.

“I have not found much support in our local community as to what I needed,” she added.

Arenhalt said help she found didn’t fit her schedule as a mom of two young children.

Incubator on hold

A big part of job creation is developing more job creators. McLean County has seen a spike in new businesses; now it’s looking for more ways to help those startups grow.

Economic and business developers in McLean County acknowledge there’s a glaring need to help startup businesses.

Illinois State University planned to open a business incubator in a new development in Uptown Normal. The plan was to create a shared office space where startups can grow until they can venture out on their own.

The incubator — and the development — never happened. The pandemic put everything on hold.

Normal Mayor Chris Koos said COVID dramatically changed the concept of commercial office space. It’s made bankers nervous.

“It’s almost impossible right now for developers to build that kind of space, unless it’s in an ownership scenario,” Koos said in an interview on WGLT’s Sound Ideas in July.

Illinois State University hasn’t given up on the incubator concept yet.

“The incubator isn’t totally dead, we’re not dead yet,” said Craig McLauchlan, associate vice president for research and graduate studies at Illinois State University.

McLauchlan said the university still has about $3 million from the Illinois Innovation Network for the concept, but it will have to come up with a new plan.

Shared workspaces

The McLean County Chamber of Commerce opened a shared space of offices about six years ago and figured that could work as a collaborative space for startups. But CEO Charlie Moore said the location on Bloomington’s east side didn’t fit the concept well and the space wasn’t big enough.

Moore said the shared space is used more as a meeting space that businesses can rent when they need it.

“Working remotely wasn’t necessarily working from home. Now for a lot of folks, that’s changed as to how they work and where they work and working from home has really changed the whole work environment. So now with shared space, we still have that same kind of concept, but different groups of people that are coming in and utilizing that space,” Moore said.

Moore suggests an entrepreneurial center more centrally located in Bloomington-Normal would thrive.

Other economic developers share that vision.

Innovation corridor

The Bloomington-Normal Economic Development Council wants to help create an innovation corridor along Main Street connecting Illinois State and Illinois Wesleyan universities.

Illinois Wesleyan has opened a new maker space for students. It features 3-D printers, laser cutters and other gear to build prototypes. And the university wants to build on that. John Quarton is director of the Petrick Idea Center at IWU. The university is raising money to build a new center where students can develop business ideas beyond the classroom and possibly see them to completion.

“You don’t create stellar athletes by asking them to develop their skills in their dorm rooms,” Quarton said, referring to students’ needs for creative spaces.

Quarton said if students can get that kind of help here in Bloomington-Normal, the area will get noticed as an entrepreneurial hub. He said that will attract investors and that will keep those aspiring entrepreneurs here.

“Oftentimes with ventures of that nature, they tend to go where the startup funding is available, and that’s typically not been here in the Midwest, but I’d like to think that can change,” Quarton said.

The idea center at Illinois Wesleyan would be student-centered. Illinois State University wants to open a space the community can use. ISU’s McLauchlan said the university is now trying to reimagine its incubator project to figure out how much space it will need.

McLauchlan said the university has more pressing facility projects planned, including a new home for its engineering college and a renovated fine arts complex.

He said the community is clamoring for an incubator, but it will take time.

“It hasn’t been a priority in the sense that it wasn’t top-of-mind because we didn’t have that same visible space to look at, but we really don’t think this idea is completely shelved yet. We’re just moving forward a little bit more slowly than we’d all wish,” McLauchlan said.

Calling all entrepreneurs

An incubator is just one element of business development. Patrick Hoban, CEO of the Bloomington-Normal Economic Development Council (EDC), said this new space — whatever and wherever it turns out to be — is part of a larger business ecosystem.

“It doesn’t necessarily need to be a space. Time will tell, this might just be a collection of resources for people,” Hoban said.

The EDC is trying to get a handle on what the business community needs. It’s hosting an entrepreneurial open house from 5-7 p.m. at Pizza Payaa in Uptown Normal. Hoban said the council wants to figure out what would help aspiring business owners the most and it will set up its strategic plan, budget and fundraising accordingly. He said that will likely include a request for federal funding.

Hoban notes Illinois Wesleyan hosts the Illinois Small Business Development Center. It helps aspiring entrepreneurs develop business plans and offers training for existing businesses.

Hoban said he’d like to see the community offer more mentoring help for new business owners.

“I believe that it’s something that we used to have here in town, and currently don’t, which I think is low-hanging fruit because there is a lot of seasoned talent in this area that would probably make really good mentors for startups.”

The EDC has tried to address the shortage of low-cost commercial space by offering grants to cover the cost of commercial space for startup businesses.

Bookkeeper Frances Arenhalt said she hopes to move into a business office next year. Her kitchen nook is her workplace now.

She’s shied away from a shared space because she needs to maintain privacy with her clients and it’s easier to be with her kids working from home.

The other challenge as a young mom — she doesn’t work 9 to 5. She works before the kids get up, after they go to bed, and weekends too.

It’s all consuming, but in a good way.

“I enjoy creating my business and I enjoy growing my business and I enjoy thinking about my business, and that’s the difference really,” she beamed.

Arenhalt plans to expand her business. She has two employees now and hopes to add three more in the coming years.

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