Conway examining Clemson incubator, asks Horry County for building

City officials are hoping Horry County will consider donating the building it owns at Fifth Avenue and Main Street for a proposed business incubator the city is wanting to bring to the area.

Conway Mayor Alys Lawson told County Council Tuesday that the city is working with staff at Coastal Carolina University, Horry-Georgetown Technical College and Clemson University to bring the incubator to Conway. Lawson said if the county could partner with the city by donating a building the county owns, which once housed the post office and most recently the museum, it would certainly help the project along.

“The city of Conway was so committed to this concept that we signed a commitment for a three-year interaction with Clemson and Coastal Carolina,” Lawson told the council. “We think it’s an important element of comprehensive economic development. You can’t always go out and get industry and bring them to your community. Sometimes you need to develop that industry here at home.

“When you incubate a business in your community, they’re more likely to grow and thrive and prosper in your community, which even expands the opportunity for employment in the Horry County area.”

Horry County Council Chairman Mark Lazarus said the county’s administration committee will consider the request at its next meeting and then bring a recommendation to the full council. Lazarus said he has not heard of an opposition to donate the building for the incubator.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for us to participate with you, Coastal Carolina and Horry-Georgetown Tech. It will be an iconic piece,” Lazarus said. “This is working all over the country. This is a huge thing that’s really bringing industry to areas, so it will be part of our overall economic development plan. That’s why I like it so much.”

This location would be the fourth of five planned incubators associated with a three-year Clemson pilot program called Technology Villages, said Karl Kelly, director of commercialization and technology incubation for Clemson University.

“Conway came to us,” Kelly said. “Our role with Conway is not a dedicated center yet. We are assisting them in the evaluation of the opportunity to place a Technology Village concept there. We have not made a commitment to do that formally yet.”

Technology Villages is designed to help small and rural communities create technology-oriented companies.

“These are the companies that are so important to South Carolina,” Kelly said. “What they represent is the opportunity to create markets that extend well outside the state and around the world.”

Kelly called it a “storefront incubator franchise concept,” where Clemson officials teach, train and work with communities to develop the center. More than 30 companies have worked with Clemson-assisted incubators in Hartsville, Bluffton and Rock Hill, he said.

“Within this pilot program, we’re really trying to disprove some of the old concerns with traditional incubators,” Kelly said. “We found that building space for companies really isn’t required. What you need is a space to help develop them and then push them into the private sector. It actually benefits a lot of the culture of the company.”

Lawson said the city is prepared to allocate $123,000, which would be the matching part of a grant it is applying for through South Carolina Department of Commerce. Lawson said the incubator would require about 1,500 square feet of the 3,000 square-foot building, and would operate on an annual budget of about $250,000.

Lawson said that location is important because of its visibility.

“We have heard from all the consultants that say you have to have a thriving, very visible site in your community, which is what helps these incubators thrive,” she said. “They need to be in an area that’s visible. They don’t need to be tucked away in business parks or inside classrooms at universities.”

“We think this project has great potential for facilitating innovative economic development in Conway as well as in the region of our state,” Lawson said.