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Innovation Hub Growing in Pine Bluff

4 min read

Go Forward Pine Bluff’s innovation hub, The Generator, is in for a busy September. Mildred Franco, executive director of The Generator, hopes renovations will begin then on its physical location: the three-story building formerly known as the Merrill Civic Center at 435 S. Main St.

In addition, The Generator will host the second annual RuralRISE National Entrepreneurship Summit Sept. 17-19 at the Pine Bluff Convention Center.

The summit will focus on “building rural entrepreneurial ecosystems, driving economic prosperity and supporting doers and innovators in rural communities across America,” according to a news release.

The Generator is part of Go Forward Pine Bluff, a nonprofit. The hub is not a separate entity, but it has its own advisory board, Franco said.

The Generator’s focus is on entrepreneurship and digital learning. Franco hopes Pine Bluff will gain more technology-based and scalable businesses as a result of the physical location better serving the needs of local entrepreneurs and aspiring entrepreneurs.

Plans call for the building, which was donated by Simmons Bank, to have two levels of co-working space, fast 1 gigabit-per-second internet, a coffee bar, conference rooms, a photography/video/podcast studio, event space, a couple of walled offices and cubicles, a digital lab for EAST Initiative programming and a “mini-makerspace” with a 3D printer, laser engraver and a computer numeri-cal control machine. CNC machines make repeated, accurate movements with tools to manufacture items.

Franco hopes to host accelerator programs at the building, and she said its makerspace will have equipment needed to produce basic prototypes and small products. The budget for the remodel is $250,000, and that will come from private funds, Franco said.

The Generator also has a professional services agreement with the city. It’ll receive $300,000 to operate each year for three years through the tax that was passed to support Go Forward Pine Bluff.

Franco said The Generator will also charge reasonable and tiered membership fees. Grants will be available, too.

She is the hub’s only employee right now but hopes to hire a day-to-day building manager, an EAST programs director and a “maker” who can show people how to use the makerspace’s equipment.

Not having a physical location or staff hasn’t slowed The Generator down.

Franco was hired to lead it in fall 2017. In March 2018, the entrepreneurial community was surveyed about their needs.

Then The Generator started hosting workshops on accessing capital, business law, marketing, sales and more.

Its partners for the workshops include Little Rock consulting firm Communities Unlimited Inc., the local FBI office, the business clinic at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s Bowen School of Law, the Arkansas Small Business Technology & Development Center, the University of Arkansas at Monticello and the Small Business Administration’s district office.

Franco said 15-20 attend the workshops. They’re held from 6-8 p.m. Dinner is provided, and she can arrange for child care if told in advance that it’s needed.

Franco said she does all that because it’s important to make it easy for people to join the budding entrepreneurial community. “It’s just bringing everyone under one roof, talking to each other and meeting each other. That can sometimes make a big difference,” she said.

The hub is a Grow With Google partner, too and plans to begin training people to use the technology giant’s free software.

Franco meets with two to five entrepreneurs or aspiring entrepreneurs on a weekly basis as well, to advise them.

But what makes The Generator different from other entrepreneurial support organizations in Arkansas is its rural community focus. “We had to kind of start from scratch because some of the solutions that had been presented … really did not match where the community was,” Franco said. “The solutions were more for where the community would be, hopefully, in the near future.”

Most of Pine Bluff’s business owners are white, even though its population is nearly 78% black, Franco said. But most of its entrepreneurs and aspiring entrepreneurs are black; that is encouraging.

Franco also said, on average, black families have less accumulated wealth than white families, so it can be more difficult for black entrepreneurs to borrow money from family to start businesses. So The Generator will help with access to capital and loan preparation.

Gaps in education are another challenge, Franco said. The Generator will address that by teaching digital skills.

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