FLORENCE — When West Texas A&M University was developing its new enterprise center, the Shoals Entrepreneurial Center was one of several business incubators co-founder David Terry visited for ideas.
Terry, executive director of WTAMU Enterprise Center, said he brought back valuable information from his visit. That was about 10 years ago, about a year after his facility opened.
Terry is just one of many people in the incubator business who has visited the Shoals Entrepreneurial Center since it opened in 1992 on Northington Court in the Florence-Lauderdale Industrial Park.
In addition to the Northington Court complex, the center operates the Jerry W. Davis Complex for Manufacturing on Helton Drive in the Florence-Lauderdale Industrial Park, the Sheffield Complex for professional and creative incubation, and the Florence Kitchen Incubator at the old Burrell Slater School.
Giles McDaniel, who took over as director five years ago after the death of longtime director Jerry Davis, said the Entrepreneurial Center has expanded to meet the needs of the community.
"We have been in operation 20 years now, so we have morphed ourself just like a business," McDaniel said. "We do so much and touch so many things."
One thing that has changed is the time a company remains in the entrepreneurial center before it moves into its own location.
"It can still fail just as fast, but it takes more time to be a success," McDaniel said.
Because of the downturn in the economy, McDaniel said businesses can remain in the center for as long as five to six years. In the past, a business spent three to five years in the center.
Gary Campbell has operated North Alabama Polishing at the Sheffield Complex for the past 21/2 years.
"I started in my garage," Campbell said. "I'd been in this business like 25 years at the time. I decided to start it myself at home in my garage, and it just grew and grew and grew, and I needed more space."
The company smooths and polishes steel molds used to make a wide variety of aluminum products, including some used in the automotive industry.
North Alabama Polishing employs seven people, including Campbell.
Campbell said he looked at buildings before someone told him about the opportunities available at the Entrepreneurial Center. The center had everything he needed, unlike many of the buildings.
"Over here, they have it all," Campbell said. "If you get a good building in a good location, you're going to pay for it."
If he has a problem, Campbell can call McDaniel and he'll either give him an answer or tell him he can't help him with that particular issue.
"He's been very helpful," Campbell said.
Campbell said he is considering expanding his operations at the Sheffield Complex.
McDaniel jokes that if the Shoals Entrepreneurial Center sold its "intellectual property" it would have amassed "quite a war chest right now."
"We gave away all our secrets," he said, referring to the numerous visits from people all over the country who were interested in how the center became so successful.
"In years past, we have had multiple visits from other communities in the state and other states in the U.S.," McDaniel said. "Numerous models have been launched from what we've done here."
Terry said Jerry Davis still was the director when he visited the Shoals Entrepreneurial Center.
"At that point, we were just building our facility," Terry said. "One of the things we recognized was the office space that opened into manufacturing spaces. Some of the flexibility in our building came from what we found there."
The WTAMU facility is for mixed business use with space for offices, manufacturing and a kitchen incubator, Terry said.
"We purchased the building, and prior to the renovations, we visited a lot of different incubation facilities," Terry said. "We learned a lot from Jerry and his expertise in incubation."
Terry also made another discovery during his visit.
"My first time to eat fried green tomatoes was in Florence, Alabama," he said.
Food, the preparation and marketing aspect has become a big deal with the entrepreneurial center's kitchen incubator.
McDaniel explained the incubator has two separate areas, one for food production and another that specializes in product development.
Early on, McDaniel said the incubator would send people off to develop a recipe for a product, but many of them would never come back. McDaniel explained the facility didn't have the capability to offer all the resources needed to help an entrepreneur launch a product.
"We had the idea that we can develop the ability to do this in house," McDaniel said, referring to recipe development, label graphics and packaging.
McDaniel said the nature of the Shoals Entrepreneurial Center is to be able to respond to changes and provide diverse services that the emerging business community might need.
He said there isn't one thing he can cite as the reason for the center's success.
"Present company excluded, we had great leadership with Jerry and the board of directors that were involved," McDaniel said. "You can't point to any one thing."
Russ Corey can be reached at 256-740-5738 or russ.corey@TimesDaily.com.
1992: the center opens in the Florence-Lauderedale Industrial Park.
127 companies have been launched from the center.
98 companies are considered "graduates."
21 companies are current center clients.
98 companies are considered graduates, 20 are current clients.
17 specialty food companies are served by the Shoals Commercial Culinary Center.
1,630 people are employed by Entrepreneurial Center businesses and graduates.
$100 million annual impact to the Shoals economy.
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