Image: Obra Project vendors gather in the new space. From left to right: Hannah Fountain, Hannah Fountain Art; Missy Roark, Board member, Tree Fort Children’s Museum; Brianna Verduzco, Evalee Ray’s Plant Shop; Angela Clay, Liberate and Lather, and John Walker, Goathead Sawmill. Photo courtesy of the Moses Lake Downtown Association.

By Luke Hallowell, Economic Vitality Specialist, Washington Main Street

Nationally, nearly 1 in 5 businesses fails in the first year according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics; however, research has shown that with technical assistance, the chance of survival in a business improves significantly.

Main Street organizations across Washington State are taking proactive steps to help bring more micro-businesses to life. They do it by providing startup classes, individual technical assistance, and support in finding capital. Some have even gone a step further by providing spaces to incubate these fragile startups and help them grow and expand in a supportive environment, with the hope that they hatch the next Main Street success story. In anticipation of our coming “how to” toolkit on incubators, here are a few stories that have inspired us this year:

The Obra Project in Moses Lake

Situated on a sleepy side street in the Moses Lake downtown district is a non-descript building that had sat vacant and was boarded up for several years, the windows covered up with particle board that was partially painted red. When Lexi Smith joined the Downtown Moses Lake Association (DMLA) in 2020 as executive director, there was a line item in the organization’s workplan that simply read, “business incubator.” Lexi and her team saw an opportunity to enhance their district’s retail offerings with some exciting new creative startups—something a community survey had identified as a key need. She went to work, raising funds and building partnerships, all while dealing with the challenges of keeping businesses alive during the COVID-19 pandemic.

DMLA took every opportunity possible to find the funds to get the incubator off the ground, and their efforts began to pay off. A grant from US Bank for $2,000 got things going, but the dream got the boost they really needed when they were awarded T-Mobile’s Hometown Grant of $50,000. They were off to the races. They channeled that momentum into their application to become a Washington State Creative District, with the proposed incubator as a key piece of their district strategy to continue to fuel the growth of the creative sector in the downtown. The project culminated in the grand opening of the Obra Project in April of 2022, with 5 tenants joining the Downtown Moses Lake Association in the space.

The LIDO Collective in Mount Vernon

On a prime retail corner in the heart of downtown Mount Vernon, the LIDO building has housed the offices of the Skagit County Democrats for over a decade. Originally built as a historic theater, the building’s beautiful Art Deco architecture was often overshadowed by the noisy collection of campaign signs covering many of the windows. Additionally, the non-retail use on a prime downtown corner created a gap in what is otherwise active retail corridor.

When she caught wind that the building was coming up for lease, Mount Vernon Downtown Association (MVDA) Executive Director Ellen Gamson sprang into action. The landlord had planned on renting to another office tenant but gave the MVDA the opportunity to take over the lease if they wanted to transition the space into retail. The organization had already been incubating individual businesses in a smaller 500 square foot location they branded the Pop-Up, and the LIDO building represented a logical next step to provide retail incubation for a group of local artists.

With support from the board and a Nonprofit Community Recovery Grant from the WA Department of Commerce, MVDA took the plunge, offering to rent the space at market rate and investing in the improvements to ready the space for retail. Thirty-year-old carpet was removed, the façade was repainted, light fixtures were updated, and the results are stunning. Today, the LIDO Collective features art from 30 artists in the area who do not have a permanent downtown home for their art year-round, rather than just at pop-ups and local art events. The ongoing investment in the arts is leading to another artist choosing to locate his business in the district as well.

The Hive in Aberdeen

When Downtown Aberdeen Association (DAA) Executive Director Wil Russoul saw a co-working space in Seattle, he decided he wanted to bring the concept to his home community of Aberdeen; however, there were limited financial resources to make it happen. Armed with connections built over years in service downtown, Wil was able to get access to the entire second story of the Becker Building, the city’s tallest structure. Despite a shoestring budget of only $4,000, Wil and his team were able to make electrical repairs, replace light fixtures that were needed, and add much needed fire safety equipment.

With the space secured, Wil put out a call to artists to join him. As a longstanding member of the art community himself, it didn’t take long for the word to spread. Soon the Hive, as he dubbed it, began filling up with a variety of creative businesses, from a small film studio, musicians, photographers and other digital artists, with 17 businesses in total. The space has also provided opportunities for the art community to collaborate and share resources in their creative projects, giving birth to more creativity and opportunity.

While it’s still early, one of the businesses has already flown from the Hive and recently signed a lease to open an independent art gallery–style coffee shop. Wil and the rest of the group helped find the space, develop a name for the businesses, and create a business plan.

As these three incubators continue to support the 50+ fledgling businesses that have hatched, we’re hopeful that more communities will join them in creating spaces where dreams can take flight. These spaces are crucial to ensuring more businesses find success as witness the next evolution of our downtown districts across the state. We invite you to join this inspiring story by supporting your local entrepreneurs and joining your local main street organization’s Economic Vitality committee to help hatch more businesses in your community.