Last year, the Cincinnati Business Incubator's Board of Trustees knew   the non-profit organization was at a crossroads.

Funding from the U.S. Small Business Administration and the city of Cincinnati had dried up. Half of the Over-the-Rhine facility's 40,000 square feet remained unused.

After 15 years, the small but talented staff had an impressive track record of training and launching minority and female-owned businesses. But current revenue"”about $300,000"”did not support CBI staff and program growth.

At a trustee retreat sponsored by BHDP Architecture, the central question became: "Where were the greatest types of incubator services that would best fit CBI?" recalls Trustee Gene Ellington, president and CEO of Ellington Management Services Inc.

The answer the board reached: focus on emerging companies in the architecture, engineering and construction fields"”especially those that can attain $1 million in revenue by CBI "graduation."

"There's such a great demand for small, women and minority construction companies," explains Ellington, whose firm connects project managers with suppliers that fill economic or minority-inclusion goals.

Construction makes sense, he adds, with billions to be spent on Metropolitan Sewer District upgrades, new and renovated Cincinnati Public Schools, and the still undetermined Banks project on the downtown riverfront.

Now, just midway through this CBI metamorphosis year, tangible signs of growth are pervasive in the sunny incubator. President and CEO Wayne Hicks leans back in his utilitarian office and ticks off the numbers:

"We have 43 clients under contract who have 140 employees. They generate $4.5 million in economic activity," Hicks says. When he was hired three years ago, just 17 micro-businesses were under contract.

The first client that fits the new profile arrived in March. Andeck Inc. is a specialty carpentry, landscape and demolition company. One of CBI's most successful clients still in-house is Genesis Home Health Care, whose president is Ralph Powers. It has grown from a handful of employees in 2004 to 30 today, spread across four offices at CBI.

Perhaps more important, CBI now has six major sponsors that provide half of its current funding: BHDP Architecture, PNC Bank, National City Bank, Cincinnati Public Schools, ProjDel Corp. and Ellington Management. Hicks hints that another major sponsorship may be in place by June.

Meanwhile, its CBI University luncheon series for entrepreneurs and small business operators has been attracting a full house each month for instructive sessions on topics ranging from navigating the Small Business Administration to using visual marketing techniques.

"Wayne is really an excellent person...very market-oriented and well respected," says Bill Fioretti, director of the Small Business Development Center at the University of Cincinnati College of Business. "He's smart enough to make adjustments."

Venture investment deals have declined by 34 percent nationwide since 2001, and venture investment dollars dropped nearly 47 percent to $21.7 billion, according to Small Business Administration indicators released early this year.

But Fioretti says the Cincinnati region has fared better, benefitting from improved bank support for startups, along with sufficient programs sponsored by the SBA and Community Express Loans. Only the technology sector is languishing, he says.

Today, there are about 1,000 business incubators in North America, the majority of which are non-profits focused on economic development. Just 5 percent of those are organizations like CBI, whose funding comes from multiple sponsors, rather than a government agency, academic institution or economic development group.

But every day, Wayne Hicks sees well beyond statistics to tangible results, not the least of which is filling the 19,000-square-feet on his third and fourth floors.

"We are changing the image of the place, how we thought of ourselves," remarks Hicks, who previously directed the IRS's Submission Processing Center in Covington.  "Creating million-dollar companies that the Chamber (of Commerce) will be proud of is a good start." 


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