Warren County has been chosen for a historic partnership with a brand known around the world—Research Triangle Park—a partnership that could be the catalyst for small business growth and entrepreneur development here and serve as a model for other communities across the state.
At its November meeting earlier this month, the Warrenton Town Board unanimously voted to support an entrepreneur center branded as “Frontier Warren, in Partnership with RTP.” The vote came following months of work by local officials and small business owners with a passion for seeing the county grow.
“This is a historic event and the first partnership of its kind in the 60-year history of RTP,” said Warren County Economic Development Director Stacy Woodhouse.
Woodhouse and Warrenton Town Administrator Robert Davie pitched the partnership to the Research Triangle Foundation, which oversees RTP.
The Research Triangle Foundation board of directors also voted to approve an agreement for Frontier Warren earlier this month.
RTF President and CEO Scott Levitan said that trying this experiment in Warrenton and Warren County extends the benefits of having RTP in the state.
“I think it’s a really good idea,” he said.
Levitan called Woodhouse and Davie the best economic developer and town manager anyplace could have.
“For our foundation, that cinched it for us,” he said.
Now, the final stamp of approval for the project rests in the hands of the Warren County Board of Commissioners.
Commissioner Tare “T” Davis, chairman of the county board, said that Frontier Warren is something that should have a long-term plan.
“It would be good for business, entrepreneurs, and the future of Warren County growth,” he said. “We need to make sure we put Frontier Warren in a position of stability, so potential entrepreneurs going into that space don’t question where they’re going to be year after year.”
Based on what has been approved so far, Frontier Warren will occupy two currently vacant South Main Street buildings owned by local businessman Al Fleming. The rent is $1,500 a month per building, with buildings fully renovated at the time of occupancy.
One building—with rent and utility expenses covered by tenant rent revenues—will house 10 offices, most already committed to local startup and existing small business owners, as well as a shared meeting room and kitchen. One office will be provided free to a local business startup that cannot afford to pay rent, Woodhouse said, to assist in getting it off the ground.
The second building includes open meeting and co-working space and is planned to open when funds are allocated by the town of Warrenton and county to make it self-sustaining. Donations from private companies and individuals will be used to purchase furniture, host events and build an outdoor deck and event space behind both buildings.
The Warrenton Town Board voted to approve a financial commitment of $5,000 annually, and for the town to act as a pass-through for donations, lease receipts and payments, accounts payable and accounting.
Information provided to the Warrenton Town Board prior to its vote on the matter describes Frontier RTP as a cornerstone to success in the Research Triangle Park, “demonstrated in the fact that 100 of the 300 companies in RTP” are located in Frontier RTP.
The annual financial commitment sought from Warren County government is $20,000.
Among joint contributions from Warrenton and Warren County outlined in a Memorandum of Understanding valid for five years are: securing tenants; creating and coordinating programming for backyard events; funding projects and programs; paying for cost overruns and budget deficits; exterior and interior building signage; coordination with public schools; and gaining branding approvals for all uses related to RTP.
Research Triangle Foundation contributions include sharing of programming templates and strategies; providing brand use guidelines and marketing approvals; helping to source RTP content experts, especially ag tech and life sciences; attending local events; and STEM RTP assistance to link low income, minority and female Warren County middle and high school students with companies in Warren County and RTP via extern-trips and STEM fests.
Local small business owners involved with the project shared excitement over the possibilities that Frontier Warren could bring to the county.
“It will provide free job skills training and could help people who don’t have any other way to get this type of training,” said Denise Allen with Sweet Delights Cookies. “Having this type of training available here will benefit a lot of people who just don’t know what direction to go in. It can change your world. It’s something positive for the whole county.”
Panda Bamboo Management and Consulting owner Robert Steverson said that Frontier Warren would move Warren County in the right direction.
“The No. 1 thing that this opportunity does is, it helps to show a vision that a number of people have to help move this county forward,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity in terms of creating a space, creating the synergy to help spawn a new entrepreneurial spirit so desperately needed in the county as a whole … especially for young people caught up with only being able to see the county where it is today, rather than where it can be.”
Steverson said that those involved with Frontier Warren share the same vision of wanting to create something new to lift others up while moving the county forward.
“It’s more than occupying space; it’s part of something bigger than that,” he said. “It’s helping to foster a spirit that we can think up our own future, leverage the partnerships of RTP, a brand that companies would pay millions of dollars to be associated with, an opportunity for them to create a model they can duplicate to be successful.”
Steverson said the project is about creating a new direction for Warren County through leadership working together.
“I see different age groups coming together, capitalizing and taking advantage, encouraging younger age groups to take advantage of the wisdom and knowledge of those who have had successes in their careers to create something special,” he said. “Frontier Warren gives us that hope and a launching pad for people to come together, work together, socialize together and create a vision for what Warren County can be. I can’t see the county not voting to move forward with this. It’s just too important.”
Jesse Taber, who, along with his wife, Megan, recently opened Drip Coffee and Market in downtown Warrenton, said Frontier Warren would benefit everybody in the county. Drip has committed to office space inside the entrepreneur center.
“It will bring in outsiders, increase customers, bring new businesses, which increases jobs,” he said. “Other people coming from areas like Raleigh increases the population and pulls in more potential investors and entrepreneurs coming here that are going to see how it’s a great place to live.”
The Tabers visited family here, fell in love with the quality of life, Jesse said, and moved from St. Petersburg, Fla., a much larger area.
“Real estate here is significantly cheaper. More small businesses is a reason for (people from outside) to come here to work. Flowers, food, drinks, gifts. They have a reason to come back. We need more people to bring more revenue, more eyes on our towns creates more buzz,” Taber said. “We become a destination, a place people want to come to and stay. We need more small businesses.”
One whole side of Frontier Warren will have meeting space, where sharing of ideas and learning will take place, Taber said.
“You don’t know what you don’t know,” he said. “This will bring outside ideas here.”
Jesse’s brother, Zayne Taber, who moved to Warren County first, will rent office space in Frontier Warren for the Taber Group. His wife, Kristen, plans to move her home office for Tabletop Media Group to Frontier Warren, Zayne said.
“You create a base and create a buzz, and things start happening,” Zayne said, adding that new business growth in downtown Warrenton made it the ideal location for Frontier Warren. “You have to have the commitment to want to make a difference. We have a catalyst to put Warren County on the map. More entrepreneurs taking the risk means more customers, higher property values, and more investment in the community without all the traffic.”
Ron Judkins, an owner of the most recent restaurant in Warrenton, On Main Southern Eatery & Venue, said that growing up in the Hecks Grove community of Warren County he didn’t have a lot of opportunities financially. He was an athlete in high school, but had to stop playing sports due to transportation issues. Judkins said he hoped the jobs and business training that Frontier Warren brings will give local students better opportunities than those he had.
“It offers a chance to collaborate with different minds, brainstorming with different people who have good ideas and business concepts,” he said. “For RTP to step out like this, to me we should support it to the fullest. It’s the beginning of something great.”
Free business training via live video feeds from RTP and the Ice House Entrepreneurship Program will be available at Frontier Warren, Woodhouse said. Thom Ruhe, president and CEO of NC IDEA, spoke briefly about the Ice House program during the Small Business Summit held here last month.
“The business training offered here will be useful for everybody in every type of career, not just entrepreneurs,” Davie said. “That’s going to be a big focus of it. The live video feeds will be with experts in RTP speaking on all types of subjects, technology, improvements, how to start and grow a business, unique job skills training.”
“This project tells the rest of the world that Warren County is progressive, getting ahead of the curve,” Davie added. “It’s going to help in all other areas of economic development.”
The county commissioners next meet on Dec. 2, but that meeting agenda has not yet been set.