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PART 2: The E-Center focused on building lasting partnerships that help grow local economy

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the final 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

John Joseph, Executive Director of the Decatur-Morgan County, AL Entrepreneurial Center is clearly passionate about the organization that he has led for more than three years. More important, however, is the pride he exudes as a result of the impact that he belies The E-Center, as it is known, is having on the community, now and over the long-term.

As noted in the first article in the series, he grew-up stocking shelves at his family’s grocery store in Decatur where the margins were two percent at best. That experience taught him the importance of both frugality and customer service, trademarks that he believes provide good models for both The E-Center and the entrepreneurs it serves.

“I run the incubator in a lean way,” Joseph says. The 40,000 square foot facility is located in a building the city provides along with $100,000 annually to help cover operational costs. That dedicated city funding came when The E-Center took on a more defined recruiting role.

Yet, while he runs a lean operation, that does not mean Joseph scrimps on client service. Both can go hand-in-hand as he explained with this example: to get the best talent to support small business owners, he’s willing to engage individuals as 1099 employees. That gives them another source of income, and The E-Center is able to attract people that might not be receptive to the wages Joseph could offer for a full-time position.

As we do with many people during interviews, we wanted to know how he had grown and expanded the operation. One key was tripling the size of the Board of Directors to get more people involved.

“We have also built regional and national partnerships with others,” Joseph says, citing the Alabama Launchpad program run by the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama as one example. There’s also one with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and others that he is exploring with the University of Alabama in Huntsville, Athens State University, and NASA.

At the top of his list, however, is one that that is focused on long-term growth of the local economy through several different activities, and these are the ones that convinced the City of Decatur to become an investor. For example, there’s the “Best & Brightest” initiative. Simply stated, it is an incentives program to recruit top STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) talent to the community. For every year a new recruit lives in Decatur, $3,000 of student debt is paid-off with a cap at $15,000.

“We have 30 people living in the city as a result of it,” Joseph says, adding, “We want it to be 10 times larger.”

Recruiting tech talent is just part of the equation in Decatur and Morgan County. Retaining homegrown talent is another priority, and it involves an approach beyond what Junior Achievement traditionally offers. Targeted at high school seniors, Joseph says there is a class project in the fall semester followed by the spring semester where “you must start an actual, functioning business to get the class credit.”

The E-Center provides many of the services like mentoring, coaching and workshops that readers would expect of an entrepreneur center, but it also takes on work that others might shun like helping recruit new companies to the community.

“We hustle,” Joseph says. “Our goal is to be a place that’s going to add value for entrepreneurs.”

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