City incubates new businesses

Josh Johnston

Michelle Cobbin wanted to open a business. The city of Kent wanted to help.

After six years in the city’s Summit Street Incubator Program, Cobbin’s business, the Christian Edwards Hair Salon, opened at 184 Currie Hall Parkway.

The incubator program is designed to help new businesses get over the hurdle of startup costs, Kent City Manager Dave Ruller said.

The city offers subsidized leases to fledgling entrepreneurs for up to five years while they grow their businesses.

“The incubation concept gives them a low-cost opportunity to test their business model in the marketplace by being able to occupy subsidized lease space that is well below market rate so that they can keep whatever limited capital they have where it’s needed most — for business development purposes rather than paying for a roof over their head,” Ruller said in an e-mail.

To qualify for the program, a business must either be a start-up or less than two years old, according to the program’s policies. Candidates must fill out an application provided by the city. Then the Community Development Department reviews the application for approval.

After five years, tenants in the program are expected to move out of the incubator space on Summit Street and find their own business space.

Cobbin, of Kent, struggled with finding a new location though.

“When the five years came up to the end, I really felt like it was crazy because of the time I put into the area,” Cobbin said.

“I really wanted to stay there — I was hoping they would (let me) — but the city of Kent stuck with what the plan was.”

City Council amended her lease and the incubator program policy to allow Cobbin to stay an extra year, but last December the council turned down an extension request from Cobbin.

“It’s not guaranteed that businesses will stay that long,” Cobbin said. “It was their thing. I just had to follow by their rules. (Economic Development Director Dan Smith) stood by me and helped me out to find another place.”

Christian Edwards opened in the New Era Building Feb. 6 with the help of a $2,500 relocation bonus Cobbin received from graduating from the incubator.

While the worry of moving is gone, Cobbin said she prays her clientele will follow her. The new location is tucked behind an almost-empty shopping plaza near the intersection of state Routes 43 and 261.

Ruller, however, thinks Cobbin’s strong customer base won’t leave her.

“The nature of her business is building a strong customer base, and I am confident that her customers will follow her to her new location.”

Just by graduating the incubator program, Cobbin has a better chance at success, Ruller said.

“Face it, in the world of startups something like 90 percent of the businesses fail within the first three years,” he said, “so anyone that is able to come out the other end of the incubator program has proven that they are a survivor and they stand a much better chance of making it on their own.”

Christian Edwards is the second business to come out of the incubator program. The first, a clinical counseling service ran by Cari Orris, graduated from the program in 2009.

“Much of the strength and growth opportunities for the Kent economy comes from entrepreneurship and small niche business owners,” Ruller said. “So we work hard to offer programs and services to help cultivate those businesses and create a business climate where they can succeed.”

Contact public affairs reporter Josh Johnston at [email protected].