Waco has the ingredients to become a entrepreneurial hotspot but has not maximized that potential, according to local business and higher education leaders involved in a new organization called Startup Waco.

Now they are moving to build a kitchen where those ingredients can be mixed and cooked.

In the next few months, the group is planning to create a 5,000-square-foot coworking space at 605 Austin Ave. with 72 spots for new ventures, plus conference rooms, a few offices and shared amenities including high-speed internet, copy machines, reception desk and coffee bar.

The center, called Hustle, is to be finished out with public economic development funds as a low-cost alternative to traditional office space. It could eventually be expanded to 15,000 square feet depending on demand.

But the center will offer more than cheap real estate. It is envisioned as a Grand Central Station of entrepreneurship, where startups can get coaching from established business operators and academics, loan application help through the Small Business Development Center and even financing from venture capitalists.

“It’s not just about space,” said Greg Leman, a Baylor Research and Innovation Collaborative official who will initially run the center. “We’ll have all the resources in one place. The kinds of business that are going to create industry in Waco are going to need mentoring and support.”

The idea of a coworking space for startup ventures isn’t new and has been tried in Waco before: The Business Resource Center ran a downtown incubator in the 1990s, and the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce operated “ThincSpace” in downtown locations from 2013 to 2015.

That space helped launch some new businesses, but this project has more community buy-in, said Tate Christensen, owner of Barsh Construction and a leader of Startup Waco, which is applying for nonprofit status. He said the group is the result of collaboration with Baylor, the business community, nonprofit groups and local government.

“When all four of those come together and bring their strengths to the table, what we can accomplish together is unlimited,” Christensen said.

The Waco-McLennan County Economic Development Corp. has recommended spending up to $750,000 in city-county incentives for the project, and the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce has pledged $100,000 for programming. Baylor has pledged institutional support, including Leman’s position.

Leman, a former corporate engineer and inventor, has served as a professor in Baylor’s business school and is director of LAUNCH, Baylor’s “innovative business accelerator.”

Kris Collins, senior vice president for economic development at the Greater Waco chamber, said the startup program is a high priority for the chamber in creating the next generation of Waco businesses.

“As we work to diversify the economy, this is a primary area where we can focus and get some high impact in the community,” Collins said. “We’ve delved into this area before, but with this partnership, it’s likely to be much more successful. We’re thinking of it as mostly knowledge-based and tech-based businesses, but it’s a startup initiative that will support a cross section of companies.”

Startup Waco leaders have done interviews with local businesses and institutions and visited entrepreneur spaces in other cities, such as Nashville, Tennessee, and Greenville, South Carolina.

At a recent presentation to the Waco City Council, Christensen said the Nashville Entrepreneur Center caught his imagination.

“It was 20,000 volts of electricity in that building,” he said. “There was so much energy in that building that if you didn’t walk out with the hair standing up on your neck, you didn’t have a pulse. I said, ‘That’s what it ought to look like.’ ”

Nashville’s center, which opened in 2010, offers startups the chance to connect with a network of more than 200 advisers, with specialties including health care, publishing and music. The center has a partnership with Google for technical support.

Waco City Council members this month voiced support for creating a similar program in Waco.

“We’ve created a culture where college students want to stay, and we need to have the jobs to develop that,” Mayor Kyle Deaver said. “There’s a lot of good that can come from this, and we’ve got a strong group working on it.”

In an interview, Christensen said he wants young entrepreneurs to have the same opportunities he got when he returned after college to his native Waco, learning the ropes of the construction industry from W.H. Barsh.

He said Waco natives and recent Baylor graduates appear more willing than ever to stay here and create their own opportunities.

“One thing I’ve learned about this generation is they think they can take on the world,” Christensen said. “This generation can go down to those hubs (such as Dallas and Houston) and be part of a cool scene, or they can stay here in Waco and create it. They’ve got a great idea and ambition, and they’re willing to put the sweat equity into it. They just need help getting started.

“It breaks my heart for people who want to stay here, who have an idea and a dream, but can’t find the resources to do it.”

Leman said Startup Waco will act as a matchmaker between young entrepreneurs and experienced mentors.

Just as important, it will connect the new businesses to potential investors in the community.

“Waco is an entrepreneurial city, and right now we see a lot of evidence of innovative leadership,” Leman said. “But when it comes to supporting entrepreneurs, we’re fragmented. There’s a lack of early-stage capital. There’s no front door, no hub.”

Kevin Renois is one of those much-discussed millennials who is sold on the potential of Waco. He stuck around after graduating from Baylor University in 2016 and worked at City Center Waco. He now organizes the weekly “One Million Cups of Coffee” event for entrepreneurs at the Hippodrome Theatre and is part of the Startup Waco team.

Renois said Waco is a welcoming environment for startups.

“Waco is a city of problem solvers,” he said. “The advantage we have is the size of Waco, the interconnectedness of the community. No one’s out to bring you down. … (Startup Waco) isn’t inventing the wheel. We’re curating the resources that are already in the community and bringing them under one roof and making them visible and accessible to everyone who wants to be an entrepreneur.”

J.B. Smith is the the Tribune-Herald managing editor. A native of Sulphur Springs, he attended Southwestern University and joined the Tribune-Herald in 1997. He and his wife, Bethany, live in Waco and have two children.

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