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Tiffany Razzano : Innovation + Job News

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Clearwater Business SPARK celebrates one year of assisting entrepreneurs

When Clearwater SPARK launched last year, the business network targeted the needs of area entrepreneurs and start-up companies. The initiative planned to be a support system for these businesses, offering them a variety of services at all levels, from conception to operations.

At the time, the program brought together five partners: the city of Clearwater’s Economic Development and Housing Department, the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce, the Florida Small Business Development Center at Pinellas County Economic Development, Florida Business Incubator (formerly known as TAFFIE) and the Clearwater Public Library System. Each partner had something different to offer small business owners and SPARK would serve as the conduit between the organizations involved and local entrepreneurs.

SPARK introduced its partners to the community at its March 2016 kick-off event at the Clearwater Main Library. Now, as SPARK partners reflect on its first year, the network will host another event at the library, Wednesday, May 24, 6 to 8 p.m.

“It really feels like we’ve come full circle,” says Audra Aja, Clearwater’s Economic Development Coordinator. “Here we are a year later bringing the community back to the library.”

The business initiative has a lot to celebrate, adds Aja, who fields calls for SPARK from her office at City Hall. In its first year, she made around 150 referrals to the initiative’s partners.

“The community has really responded to us and shown its support,” she says. “We bring a much-needed service to the community.”

SPARK has also welcomed two new partners since its launch. In January, Prospera, formerly known as the Hispanic Business Initiative Fund, joined the network as a way to reach out to Hispanic-owned businesses in Clearwater.

The latest partner to join forces with SPARK, Pinellas County SCORE, will be formally introduced at the May 24 event. SCORE, a nonprofit association with thousands of business experts worldwide, offers mentorship for small businesses and other educational resources.

The organization has been involved with SPARK from the beginning. They held business workshops at the Main Library. “They just weren’t an official partner,” Aja says.

SCORE brings new resources to the table, she adds. “They’ll be able to help those in the beginning phases of exploring their ideas and getting started. That’s something we didn’t have in our network. SCORE comes in at the entry level.”
 
In addition to accepting more referrals from SPARK, SCORE will also offer one-on-one consultations at Clearwater venues as well as more workshops.

The May 24 event will also serve as an open house for the library’s Maker Studios, Aja says. The Main Library has five studios spread throughout the building: the Creation Studio, the Discovery Studio, the Innovation Studio, the Multimedia Studio and the Heritage Studio, which will open in July. The Maker Studios launched last May.

During the open house, guests will tour the Multimedia and Innovation Studios, where they will learn about the free programs for small businesses and entrepreneurs, and view hands-on demonstrations of the equipment available in these spaces. Software, programs and equipment available for use include business databases, 3-D printers and scanners, design and production software, and audio and video equipment.

Rino Landa, Maker Studios coordinator, says not many libraries offer a makerspace. So the Clearwater Main Library stands out as a space for entrepreneurs and small businesses, he says. The wide range of offerings – from painting and sewing classes to tools for start-ups to genealogy resources – is also remarkable. “We are unique in that we have multiple spaces throughout the library and so much to offer on each floor,” he says.

Aja says the Maker Studios is the most “underutilized” aspect of SPARK, so the May 24 open house is designed to remind residents that it’s available to them. It’s also continuing to evolve, she adds, especially as new technology is developed. She says the library will add more multimedia tools and expand its workshop schedule in the coming year. “We’re really very fortunate that the library has invested in this for the community,” she says.

Register for the May 24 event at the Clearwater SPARK website or call (727) 443-0217.

Prospera joins Clearwater SPARK, nurtures Hispanic businesses

Twenty-five years ago, Prospera -- then called the Hispanic Business Initiative Fund -- was established in a small West Tampa office. 

There was a need to support Hispanic entrepreneurs in the area, says Claudia Johnson, senior business development consultant on the West Coast. Prospera stepped in to fill this void by offering bilingual technical assistance and workshops to Spanish-speaking businesses.

Decades later, the organization has spread to markets in south Florida and as far north as Jacksonville. Additional offices have opened in Miami and Orlando. Over the past 25 years, Prospera has “supported several thousands of people,” Johnson says. “Our objective became to strengthen the state of Florida’s economical sector with Hispanics.” 

Now, Clearwater is the latest city in Prospera’s far-reaching network. As of January, the group became the sixth organization to join Clearwater Business SPARK, a city-led business incubator that brings together a variety of resources for entrepreneurs and small business owners.

Prospera was looking for a home base in Pinellas County, Johnson says, and Clearwater made the most sense for a partnership. “The city has the majority of Hispanics [in the county,]” she says. “So that is where we are working closely. Now we have a more clear collaboration, a strong collaboration.” 

Denise Sanderson, the city’s director of Economic Development and Housing, says Hispanic entrepreneurs and small businesses represent approximately 20 percent of the city’s population. “Hispanic-owned businesses are an important and growing sector of our local economy,” she adds.

While Pinellas County residents were always welcome to participate in Prospera’s workshops and grant programs in other cities, the organization is now specifically targeting Clearwater. The organization will host six bilingual public workshops covering a variety of topics of interest to small businesses at Clearwater libraries throughout the year. The first was held Jan. 31 with around 30 attendees, Johnson says. 

In addition to training, and mentorship assistance with marketing and business planning, Prospera offers grants to small businesses looking to pay for professional services such as accountants and attorneys. The group also helps facilitate small business loans to entrepreneurs through partnerships with several banking institutions. “We’ve facilitated about $20 million worth of money for loans for clients throughout the whole state,” Johnson says.

She adds, “We’re here to help strengthen their business -- from start-ups to ongoing businesses. We’re a very active organization to help Hispanics.”

Inc. magazine names Clearwater top spot for fast-growing companies

Business is booming in Clearwater, according to Inc. magazine.

The monthly publication, which focuses on national business and industry growth, ranks Clearwater No. 1 in the country for the number of private businesses to make the magazine’s annual Inc. 500 list of fastest-growing companies. 

Relative to its population size of more than 110,000 residents, Clearwater was able to beat Irvine, CA, Atlanta, GA, Hollywood, FL, and Alexandra, VA for the top spot.

Four Clearwater-based private companies -- Stratus (66), e-Telequote Insurance (113), KnowBe4 (139) and Digital Media Solutions (434) -- ranked in the Inc. 500 list, which is published in the magazine’s September edition. 

Additionally, the city had five businesses make the Inc. 5000 list of fastest-growing companies:
  • Progressive Dental (739), 
  • GovDirect (1,150), 
  • Pure Air Control Systems (1,638), 
  • CWU Inc. (1,939), and 
  • Murphy Business & Financial Corporation LLC (3,061).
While some might be surprised that Clearwater tops such a prestigious list, Denise Sanderson, the city’s Economic Development and Housing director, isn’t shocked by the news. She says it “illustrates the significant concentration of successful, high-growth businesses” in the area.

Millions of visitors flock to Clearwater Beach each year, making tourism the city’s top industry and the backbone of its economy. But Clearwater is also home to a number of diverse business sectors as well, including information technology, software, finance, insurance, marine science, medical technology and manufacturing.

Sanderson says the city will continue to do what it can to entice new companies. In fact, the city’s Economic Development & Housing Department recently teamed up with several public and private partners to launch Clearwater Business SPARK, a network of resources for businesses in the greater Clearwater area, this past spring.
  
“Clearwater welcomes businesses with its favorable business climate, great infrastructure, talented workforce and exceptional quality of life,” she says. “[It] has and will continue to attract entrepreneurs, startups and established businesses poised for growth and expansion.”
3 Tiffany Razzano Articles | Page:
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