Hillsborough opens center in Ybor for entrepreneurs to make connections, find capital

Hillsborough County is betting big on small business. The new Mark Sharpe Entrepreneur Collaborative Center in Ybor City fulfills the former County Commissioner’s vision of a hub for entrepreneurs within a thriving, connected community.

The ECC, home to 8,000 square feet of shared space, will fulfill dual roles: continuing the traditional services provided at the county’s former Small Business Information Center, and serving as a place for community partners and local entrepreneurs to comingle and, potentially, collaborate.

“It’s a hub -- it’s a one-stop shop, and it’s something that we haven’t had in the county for a really long time,” says Hillsborough County’s Economic Development Director Lindsey Kimball. “Commissioner Sharpe was a huge impetus for this, and every single one of the board members has been amazingly supportive of the ECC.”

One-on-one counseling, online classes, business planning, marketing workshops and many other business services at the ECC will be offered at no charge, while in-house community partners will provide additional free or low cost services, mentorship and, in some cases, access to capital.

“We are here to help everybody from a ‘wannapreneur’ all the way up to well-established businesses across different industries, at different sizes, and at any point in the life cycle of the company,” says Kimball. “We’re here to connect folks, to make everything that is in the community a little better by combining resources and leveraging the expertise that’s already here in our community.”

Re-imagining economic development for the modern entrepreneur

Moving the SBIC from 56th Street in North Tampa to a more central location in Ybor City was a part of the plan to benefit community partners and allow for collaboration to occur more organically.

“We wanted somewhere more centrally located, somewhere folks would want to come have meetings, collaborate and communicate with each other,” Kimball explains. “We’ve reengineered everything so that we are reaching more customers, and we’re also reaching more of our partners.”

Community partners from groups like the Arts Council, Florida Next and TEDCO will be at the ECC for one or two days each week. Community partners are “a big, important part of the Entrepreneur Collaborative Center – it’s not just about the entrepreneurs working with each other, but it’s about our nonprofits in the community, like SCORE, utilizing the space,” says Kimball.

SCORE chairman Gene Bliss says that the group intends to council clients and conduct chapter meetings and business workshops at the ECC.

“The ECC provides broad access to multiple business resources quickly and efficiently,” says Bliss. “The ability to literally walk clients between the appropriate groups for assistance will be invaluable.”

Inspired by design of The Hive, the collaborative center in the John F. Germany Public Library downtown, the ECC in Ybor City is modern, with features like configurable tables, walls covered in white board paint, and free high-speed WiFi from Brighthouse.

Along with several offices and cubicle spaces for community partners to use, the Entrepreneur Collaborative Center houses several conference rooms, a kitchenette and a small resource room outfitted with computers, where entrepreneurs can take a course online, go through materials, or do business plan research.

The ECC’s hours are currently 8:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m., but will likely change based on customer needs, says Kimball. As a bonus in Ybor City, a parking lot directly across the street from the center provides free, secure parking.

Small business services meet modern innovation

“We anticipate that being part of a vibrant, active center will enhance our overall visibility in the community,” Bliss says. 

Classes, workshops and services at the ECC keep the focus on the community’s small business needs, while an Entrepreneur in Residency program will bring in an accomplished entrepreneur to serve as a mentor and a sounding board specifically for tech and innovation companies in coming months.

The Economic Development Innovation Initiative program, which provides funds for innovative tech and startup events, will also operate from the ECC.

“Part of the EDI2 is about is providing a foundation to strengthen the technology and innovation ecosystem, so we took the same pathway with our small business and entrepreneurial services -- what can we do to make our partners stronger?" Kimball explains. “By working together and helping each other be stronger, I think we can make a big impact.”

The Hillsborough County Mark Sharpe Entrepreneur Collaborative Center opening ceremony is at 10 a.m. on Thursday, Dec. 11, at 2101 E. Palm Ave. in Ybor City.

“Two years ago it wasn’t even a spark of an idea yet, which is pretty amazing,” says Kimball. “In less than a year, we completely shut down a location; opened up a new, modern location; engaged over two dozen community partners; and are moving forward.“

Justine Benstead is a freelance writer who can usually be found walking her dog in her South Tampa neighborhood, drinking far too much coffee, tweeting @JustineinTampa, and taking photos with her trusty Nikon. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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Justine Benstead is a feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.