Macon makes life easier for start-up businesses

Jennifer Moore, an attorney focusing primarily on immigration cases and family law, is just starting to build a client base and found office space at The 567 Center For Renewal, at 533 Cherry St.

But that was only half of the start-up problem. Under Macon ordinances, she needed to pay the city’s business license office $100, pay $200 to the Macon-Bibb County Planning & Zoning Commission for a permit, plus have her small office inspected as though it was a freestanding building, and buy her own smoke detector and fire extinguisher to meet fire codes, Moore said.

But operating a start-up business in Macon just got easier.

Last month, Macon City Council approved a proposal from Councilman Larry Schlesinger to greatly simplify that process for tenants of a business incubator -- and to make it much cheaper.

Moore moved into “The 567” two weeks ago, and thanks to the new ordinance, full licensing cost her just $32.50.

“It was fabulous. It couldn’t have come at a better time,” she said. “When you start with nothing, it’s good to have affordable rent and affordable business license fees.

“That meant that I could buy my malpractice insurance, pay my bar dues and have a chair to sit in.”

Now only the incubator itself, rather than all its tenants, is charged the permit fee; and that has been cut to $50.

“I was pleased at how reasonable the fee was,” said Melissa Macker, executive director of the The 567 Center For Renewal, a nonprofit business incubator.

Tom Buttram, head of the county’s Inspections & Fees Department, has been very helpful in conveying information about the change, Macker said. Once the ordinance took effect, getting The 567’s umbrella license took less than a day, she said.

“They’ve greatly streamlined the process,” Macker said.

“And I went the next day and got all set up,” Moore said.

Schlesinger’s ordinance is intended to encourage the establishment and growth of business incubators.

“It’s something that those of us in the downtown development/economic development game have talked about a lot,” said Alex Morrison, the Macon-Bibb County Urban Development Authority’s executive director.

It creates a new “privileged license fee” of $50 for incubator operators, provided that they’re nonprofits or get at least 75 percent of their income from tenants’ rent and fees.

For its first two years of operation, a business that starts in an incubator can get the appropriate occupational tax certificate for half price; those vary by type of business. But the ordinance also exempts those nascent businesses from providing individual proof that they comply with zoning, building and fire codes, as long as the incubator as a whole does.

The 567 now has five full-time tenants, including a photographer/videographer, cleaning service and women’s ministry, Macker said. One web designer initially took an office, decided he didn’t need it and now uses the co-working space, she said.

The 567, as the first business incubator downtown, is a test case. But the eased requirements could prompt other agencies, universities or governments to open incubators of their own for technology-based businesses or light manufacturing, Morrison said.

“The idea’s definitely out there, and when the stars align we’d really like to see that happen in downtown Macon or anywhere else in the community that could house tech start-ups or other innovative ideas,” he said.

In November 2010, New City Church Downtown opened The 567 in two floors of the former Thorpes Building at 533 Cherry St. It houses an art gallery and music venue on the first floor. Upstairs is a variety of office space used as a business incubator with individual offices, a common lounge area and conference space. Start-ups can rent office space for a minimum of three months, ranging from $250 for 94 square feet to $350 for 170 square feet.

Use of tables and chairs in the common area, and access to the Internet and basic office equipment, can be had for $69 – what the center calls “co-working space,” for computer-based businesses that don’t necessarily need a fixed office.

The 567 offers help with business plans and consulting services, free or for a nominal fee.

“For deserving participants that cannot afford those fees, The 567 is able to work with you on a per-case basis. Just ask,” according to a fact sheet about the business incubator.

When the business incubator was approved, economic development officials didn’t quite realize that existing law required them to “basically treat every individual office as if it were a building,” Morrison said.

Setting high hurdles and unreasonable expenses before fledgling entrepreneurs doesn’t match the intent of a business incubator, he said.

Johnny Rohrbeck, owner of Valor Candles, has been in The 567 since September 2011. He had already paid the $200 planning fee and was going through the old system of inspections needed for a business license when Schlesinger’s ordinance passed. That let him get his license quickly, and for the same $32.50 Moore paid, he said.

Rohrbeck said his scented candles, liquid hand soap, hand sanitizer, shaving soap, air fresheners -- scents aimed toward men, but not for them exclusively -- are made elsewhere, but keeping his office and some of his product in The 567 allows him to “let home be home and work be work.” It’s also a great way to let potential customers smell the products, since sales are conducted through, Rohrbeck said.

He was glad to see city government make it easier to start businesses like his, which feed into political leaders’ stated desire to revitalize downtown Macon, he said.

“This is a very small and simple way of doing it, but it does speak volumes to the intention of the city,” Rohrbeck said.

Moore said she’s happy to have a Cherry Street office near other attorneys and the courts, one which even has room for clients’ children if they come along. Making it easier for business incubators to open and operate is one of Macon City Council’s best-thought-out moves, she said.

“Downtown can be so much more than it is. Making it easier for businesses to be here can only be a good thing,” Moore said, adding that The 567 is close to her favorite lunch spots. “Not only will I be making more money here, but I’ll be spending more money here, too.”

Information from Telegraph archives was used in this report. To contact writer Jim Gaines, call 744-4489.