(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first article in a two-part series spotlighting The E-Center in Decatur and Morgan County, AL, something that could be a model for no-metropolitan communities to investigate.)
By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA
“My small business roots run deep,” says John Joseph, Executive Director of the Decatur-Morgan County, AL Entrepreneurial Center, better known as The E-Center.
Today, after college at the University of Mississippi and working in Washington, DC and Birmingham, he’s back in the community where he grew-up in a family-run grocery store stocking shelves. This time, however, Joseph is helping his hometown grow a more thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem. For those not familiar with Decatur, it is along the Tennessee River, about an hour south of Pulaski, TN, and 30 minutes from Huntsville, an “on fire” technology- and government-infused community.
“We believe we can capture more of the population growth resulting from the growth of Huntsville,” Joseph tells us. He’s been in business and economic development since 2006 after earning a law degree from the University of Alabama. Of that, Joseph laughingly says, “That confirmed I wanted to be in business!”
Today, The E-Center is a thriving model of what smaller communities can do to inspire entrepreneurial activity and successfully support start-ups. With a city population of a little less that 55,000 and a total population in the county of not quite 120,000, Decatur might not be one of the first places you would think that there’s a thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem, but you would be mistaken.
The E-Center, founded in 2010, is a 40,000 square foot facility that ranks in the top three incubators in the state in terms of the number of clients served currently, number served overall since its founding, and number of graduates who are still operating their businesses.
“We are totally full in spite of COVID,” Joseph says, adding that includes all of the individual offices as well as the industrial bays that typically support 20 to 25 businesses and the virtual clients that do not have dedicated space.
“That’s a product of the good efforts of a lot of people,” he says, starting more than a decade ago with Larry Waye, the inaugural Executive Director, and a Board of Directors. “Prospects for the incubator were uncertain at the time,” The E-Center notes on this webpage detailing its history. “The E-Center grew and continued to serve more and more businesses by staying true to its mission to encourage, enthuse, and empower entrepreneurs and small businesses. The organization developed a reputation for intensive coaching, telling entrepreneurs the hard things they needed to hear, and caring about them through the ups and downs of launching any business. Workshops, educational courses, training sessions, and strategic partnerships all enhanced The E-Center’s ability to serve entrepreneurs better along the way.”
When Waye decided to step down in 2018, the group did not have to look very far. Joseph had returned to his hometown in 2015 as Executive Director of an organization named Decatur Corridor Development Inc., and he said Waye recruited him to be his successor. Once named to the post, he and the Board took six months to develop a strategic plan that they are now methodically implementing.
Again, quoting from the organization’s history, “Components of the resulting strategic plan included: (1) recruiting emerging companies from growing industries; (2) recruiting and retaining young professionals; (3) creating a new generation of entrepreneurs and expanding access to key resources; (4) securing new national and regional partnerships; and (5) focusing on increasing the long-term economic impact in key industries including agricultural technology and robotics. The E-Center thus became one of the first, if not the first incubator in the country to launch a long-term economic development arm. It now runs various first-in-nation and first-in-state initiatives.”
Today, Joseph proudly says that The E-Center was one of the first business incubators in the nation with an economic development arm dedicated to the long-term expansion and diversification of the local economy. He also touts the fact that Business Alabama magazine has recently confirmed that The E-Center is #1 in the state overall among business incubators for number of companies graduated, #1 for cities of its size, and #2 overall behind Birmingham for the number of current clients.
NEXT: Joseph shares more details about the many ways that The E-Center is helping aspiring entrepreneurs of all types.