GOSHEN — Though you won’t see any signs proclaiming it, and though nobody set out to make it happen, the biggest business incubator in this region is the heart of the Maple City.
Tyler Springer and Mark Springer (no relation, believe it or not — “We didn’t have to argue about the name of the company,” Tyler said) started Springer Design five years ago in their apartment while Goshen College students, getting a little seed money from the Eli Lilly Foundation through the college’s entrepreneurial program.
Now they run a downtown business that bucks some of the trends they ran into: They hire interns, giving them meaningful work to do. They work with other apparel start-ups across the country, helping those businesses get started immediately.
“We just have that entrepreneurial spirit where we want to empower people,” Tyler Springer said.
They also want to continue some of the trends they found when setting up downtown. “That’s one of the cool things about downtown Goshen, that network of entrepreneurs helping entrepreneurs,” Tyler Springer said.
“We love being downtown. Warehouse space is cheap, but part of our identity is just being easily accessible to everybody,” he said.
Alex Cook was working right next door Monday, preparing to open up a new office of his information-technology business, which will be called Pro IT Express. Cook worked at Notre Dame for five years, then started his IT business in his hometown of Wakarusa 16 months ago. Now, “I want to be here,” he said, standing outside his new space on Main Street.
“This is the place to be now. It’s all happening. The last five years you guys have done so much down here, First Fridays, Goshen College,” all are part of the attraction for Cook. He plans to open in about a month.
“Just to be part of downtown Goshen, I love it down here. Because of what they’ve already done down here makes it more attractive for businesses to come down here.”
“Ten, 15 years ago when we started this, things were pretty shaky,” said Dave Pottinger, who’s done tons of work to renovate downtown Goshen. He and his son-in-law, Jeremy Stutsman, have worked on dozens of projects — Stutsman recently finished his 40th downtown project — to bring out the history of downtown while renovating new spaces.
“What we do is the easy part,” Pottinger said, drinking a cup of coffee and eating a muffin at The Electric Brew. “Anybody can knock plaster off brick. … The trick is getting people down here. That’s been something that’s been a real pleasant surprise.” Starting a business is easy; making it work is difficult.
Making businesses work is happening more and more, though, said Tim Braun. Braun has started local businesses, owns a downtown building and now covers north-central Indiana for Elevate Ventures, an organization that helps entrepreneurs start businesses.
“I think Goshen, downtown Goshen has reached at least some level of critical mass, and I think there is great potential,” Braun said.
Braun’s based out of the Innovation Park at Notre Dame, but believes the biggest business incubator wasn’t one specifically planned for. It happened organically in downtown Goshen.
“Goshen has a number of very interesting assets that I think have caused this to be, but nobody planned this out. Nobody said, ‘We’re going to get a task force and a pool of capital to turn downtown Goshen into an entrepreneurial hub.’ Nobody had that vision, at least not to my knowledge,” Braun said.
“It happened anyway. It’s a culmination of things,” he said. Those are things like Goshen College, things like people investing in downtown buildings, and people like the owners of long-term businesses like Sorg Jewelers or John Hall’s Hardware.
When Brenda Kauffman started The Electric Brew, that helped start a turnaround downtown, Braun said. He credits the coffee shop and the efforts of Pottinger, establishing artists guilds and then starting on downtown buildings, as starting to build the momentum.
There’s a class of people in their 20s and 30s moving in. They want to eat sushi, choose from a large selection of craft-brewed beers. They want to get a cup of coffee or go to a concert in an intimate venue. All of that can happen in less than a block.
“The fact that you can walk from the town square and be at a year-round, vibrant farmers market in its own building, it is truly unique and rivals a lot of farmers markets in larger cities,” Braun said.
Elkhart County’s manufacturing heritage has helped start-ups, too, said Gina Leichty of Downtown Goshen, Inc., the nonprofit organization that promotes downtown and runs the monthly First Fridays downtown block parties.
“From a manufacturing standpoint, Elkhart County has just an enormous amount of resources,” Leichty said, and “Goshen’s conveniently located, right in the middle of that.”
Space is affordable downtown, and building owners and city government are both helpful and willing to work with people just getting established.
Leichty also cited the artists’ guilds, saying, “That artistic presence is something that’s been very important in Goshen’s renaissance.”
That also helped downtown Goshen weather the worst economic storm since the Great Depression.
“People were opening restaurants,” many of them still open, Braun said. A hot dog vendor started up, serving downtown businesspeople and residents, and his business has expanded.
“People were investing significant dollars in downtown Goshen,” Braun said. “That’s such a huge positive indicator for downtown Goshen.”
He said, “there’s still fragility. It’s hard work and guts that it takes to make a lot of the businesses.” Still, based on what he saw during the recession, “How much more awesome is it going to be in five years?”
There are businesses that fail, he acknowledged. “It’s not the be-all, end-all,” but he pointed to Lucid, a company he founded that is about to move out completely. “It was an incubator for Lucid,” but now the company’s outgrown Goshen. Something else can come in and take its place, though, he said.
Dave Daugherty, president of the Goshen Chamber of Commerce, said, “There is this energy in town that really is exciting,” something that creates “a support system from a whole diverse group of epole willing to work together and see success.”
That’s why the chamber is renovating their upstairs to create a formal business incubator, something they’ll call the “launching pad.”
“What we’re trying to do is take the space we have and help the entrepreneur,” to “continue to build that synergy, help the creative group of individuals we have to continue to blossom and invite others in,” Daugherty said.
Braun said of the chamber’s plan, “OK, this is now an intentional experiment,” the first. “We could call it the entrepreneur’s guild. Get the entrepreneurs out of their basements, out of their spare rooms,” working together, he said.
Goshen’s position is unique, according to Braun.
He sees signs that it could happen elsewhere: Warsaw is primed as “kind of a perfect storm that could explode,” he said. South Bend, in a decade, could rival Ann Arbor. Elkhart, too, is moving toward developing a similar environment.
Still, Goshen is ahead of other cities in this area, according to Braun. “If this exists anywhere else in the region, I haven’t come across it yet.”