Business accelerator gets final push thanks to new vision

Published 4:44 pm Wednesday, September 6, 2023

By Jake Moore, Bowling Green Daily News

Abraham Williams felt both relief and excitement Tuesday night.

“Good God almighty, it’s been a long time,” the executive director of the Housing Authority of Bowling Green said outside of the City Hall commission chambers.

He had just watched the Bowling Green Board of Commissioners accept the final $1.5 million in West Kentucky State Aid Funding for Emergencies needed to put the dream of opening a small business accelerator back on the table.

The former Save-A-Lot at 348 College St. has been patiently waiting for a facelift since last June.

That was when the city entered an agreement with Houchens Industries and HABG nonprofit Live the Dream Development to reshape the former grocery into a launchpad for businesses owned by refugee, minority and low-income populations.

Houchens Industries agreed to provide the building and up to $500,000 for renovations. The city put up $1 million and the General Assembly pitched in $600,000.

“We thought we had enough,” Williams said.

But renovation bids came back higher than expected. The project has a current cost estimate of $3.6 million, and that funding gap put the accelerator on ice for several months.

But there are times when a problem can be solved by looking at things from a different angle.

The scope of the project was shifted. Not only would the accelerator host businesses owned by disadvantaged groups, but it would also provide a home for operations hit by the city’s December 2021 tornadoes.

“A lot of those businesses were renting space,” Brent Childers, director of Neighborhood and Community Services, said. “Those were lower commercial rents, those were older properties.”

The corridors hit the hardest were the U.S. 31-W By-Pass and Russellville Road, places Childers said where minority-owned small businesses could “get a start.” A lot of that square footage was wiped out, creating a need that could be addressed through an accelerator.

City Manager Jeff Meisel said Childers and Grants Manager Nick Cook “went to work,” asking the state if Bowling Green could use $1.5 million of SAFE funds to establish the accelerator with its added purpose.

“We convinced them, and we’re not stretching the truth here,” Meisel said. “There were 90 properties negatively impacted with 127 businesses on them.”

Williams said the goal is to host at least 12 businesses inside the accelerator, taking in some of the tornado victims.

“We’ll bring them back,” he said.

The location will also house vetted businesses working with Live the Dream’s People’s Opportunity Program for Underserved Populations, which provides mentoring and business development training to minorities, women and low-income business owners.

Williams shared that some of the selected tenants include a restaurant, a salon and a sandwich shop. Support offices and community meeting spaces will take the place of grocery aisles.

Rent will be kept low to help new businesses get established and to make things easier for existing ones still trying to get back on their feet in a tough market.

“It’s gone from $600 to $1,200 to $2,000 a month for a place and they just can’t hang on anymore,” Williams said.

Maximum accelerator rent has yet to be decided, but Williams said the figure will be below $1,000.

The accelerator is still accepting applicants and Williams encouraged owners to reach out to himself or Katie Miller, deputy director of the HABG.

“You can come talk to us and we’ll sit down and evaluate the type of space you might need,” he said.

Mayor Todd Alcott said he thought it was “fantastic” to see more SAFE dollars coming back to Bowling Green, adding that he would have hated to see such a project fall by the wayside.

“This is exciting news to hear,” the mayor said.

Commissioner Carlos Bailey said he couldn’t wait to see what businesses are fostered through the accelerator.

“We know that when you give someone – not necessarily a hand-out, but to give them an avenue where they can achieve those financial freedoms – the rate of return is going to be great in the future,” Bailey said.

Childers said the SAFE funds have been received and the go-ahead has been given to resume the design process, along with everything else that had “kind of been placed on hold just because of the cost.”

“Hopefully in the next few months, we’ll be able to kick everything off and have a big public unveiling for the project,” he said.

The Save-A-Lot renovations are estimated to take about 9-12 months.

“It’s a lot bigger building than what you’d think, it’s about 18,000 square feet and you’re talking about a full, top-to-bottom renovation,” Childers said.

The plan is for each business suite to have its own front door access, similar to a shopping plaza. A new roof, a new facade, new restrooms and parking lot improvements are all in the cards.

It’s a lot of work – “You’re converting an old grocery store into a multi-tenant building now,” Childers said – but the re-activation of the dormant building in the city’s historic Shake Rag district should hopefully drive commerce and activity in the area.

“It was a thriving community before and we’re just bringing it back to where it was,” Williams said. “We want to come in and build that same community back and get good pride behind it.”