It’s been a year since 26 West Center opened its doors in a renovated library on State College of Florida’s campus in Bradenton, and already it’s outgrowing the space.
During the Bradenton Area Economic Development Corp.'s recent annual luncheon, Sharon Hillstrom, president and CEO, announced the EDC will be the next tenant to move into 26 West. In response, the center is in the process of building out six private offices on the second floor. The EDC, currently in Lakewood Ranch at the McClure Center, will have a private suite at 26 West.
“That is a big win for everybody,” 26 West Director Kim Richmond says.
The EDC’s move to 26 West Center goes back years, Richmond says. Todd Fritch, executive vice president and provost at SCF, grew a relationship with EDC officials, which led to him brokering this deal. Richmond says he worked closely with Hillstrom. “It’s a true partnership,” she says.
“I think it builds upon his vision for 26 West,” adds Desh Bagley, director of the SCF Coding Academy.
Fritch was the main writer of the grant from the Department of Economic Opportunity that funded 26 West. Together with with SCF President Carol Probstfeld they set goals for the project, named for its address, 5840 26th St. W., Bradenton. The EDC was also instrumental in helping SCF secure $3.6 million in job growth grant funding from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity to establish the center.
The newest addition, which won’t move in until January, puts the lab at over 100% operational capacity in terms of rental space. All eight private offices are currently rented. There are also two residents who use the community space. “We are a hub for not just startups, but existing small businesses in the area,” Richmond says.
It’s also been a good resource for students and community members. The 40,000-square-foot space, designed for entrepreneurs and small businesses, was a $4.4 million project. It now hosts seven business services, including a business growth lab and incubator; student incubator; entrepreneurship academy; personal branding lab; digital collective; coding academy; and creative suite.
The EDC and other businesses are located in the lab and incubator, which provides rentable space for businesses and entrepreneurs on a monthly basis.
The center also supports an SCF Entrepreneurship Club for students that has gained 16 members. Through a partnership with New College of Florida in Sarasota, the center is going to host a pitch showcase called Launch! members of the entrepreneurship club can attend. They’ll be able to pitch a business idea for $250 in seed money.
“It’s not as much about the money as it is about this experience of them being able to utilize their experience here at the 26 West Center,” Richmond says.
The center’s Entrepreneurship Academy and Personal Branding Lab, which offers noncredit classes to community members and students, saw 70 students participating in classes at no cost thanks to a $20,000 grant from Bank of America. “That’s a very powerful impact,” Richmond says.
The Digital Collective and Creative Studio, an in-house digital agency, is currently working with 10 clients that range from multimillion dollar businesses to startups. Currently, they offer help on website development, social media content, email newsletters and analytics and insights. The center is also in the process of adding full-service podcasting to the mix, which would mean everything from strategy to episode planning all the way through recording.
“We see the demand and results in all areas,” Richmond says. “We have proof of concept. Our customers are willing to pay us for the services and that we’re delivering high quality services.”
The Coding Academy has received a number of grants from local organizations to help launch industry certifications, which Bagley says can make a difference on whether a student is hired.
“(Students’) resumes will make it to the top of the pile if they’re able to add industry certifications to their list of skills,” she says.
Since last year, the bootcamps through the academy have graduated 12 students, of which 10 already have employment in their career field.
“When you say cybersecurity, software engineering, artificial intelligence, machine learning and robotics, some people start to think they aren’t capable or qualified to be in those fields,” Bagley says. “So helping our community overcome imposter syndrome has been a big challenge.”
Another challenge is finding space with the big question between Bagley and Richmond being, ‘Can I have this room?’ “It’s a nice problem to have,” Bagley says.
The solution has been class time flexibility and hybrid classes, allowing some students to attend class online. That’s even allowed the academy to expand class sizes.
Amanda Postma is a business reporter covering Sarasota and Manatee counties. After graduating from the University of Missouri School of Journalism in 2018, Amanda was a reporter for a small-town newspaper in Missouri before becoming a marketing associate for a career resource startup in St. Louis.