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Closed-door meeting leads to revelations on Incubator use

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ABINGDON, VA - The Washington County, Virginia Board of Supervisors has new expectations for the Virginia Highlands Small Business Incubator following a closed-door meeting between government leaders and incubator leaders. It's some resolution following a dispute over transparency and future funding of the nonprofit.

At the meeting there were only two county supervisors, including chairman Randy Pennington and Dr. James Baker, two Abingdon town councilman, including Mayor Cathy Lowe who runs the incubator and vice mayor Rick Humphreys, the county administrator, the county lawyer, the town administrator, the incubator's board of directors, as well as some of the parties' lawyers.

Baker said the meeting was kept behind closed doors because of the proprietary nature of some of the discussion, as well as to get answers he didn't think would come out as easily in a public venue.

"People are much more guarded in what they say, it's harder to get the truth, and even honest questions can be perceived as trying to put someone on the spot or trying to look bad," Baker said. "That does not help you get to the truth or what's trying to be done."

Baker said misperception was part of the problem. The discussion gave him a new understanding that housing small businesses is just part of the nonprofit's scope.

"They have a mission that is much broader and it includes much more economic development, skill force training," Baker said.

He points at the Center for Excellence as an example, a job training program housed at the incubator. With new expectations, Baker said continued joint funding from the town and county is worthwhile.

"We're getting $80,000 worth of economic benefit," Baker said. "Not through the incubation, though, through their other arms of economic outreach."

Incubator director Cathy Lowe, however, insists the organization does primarily serve as an incubator, facilitating small businesses through in-person or online classes across the state in addition to offering affordable real estate.

"Just because they don't open a business inside those four walls," Lowe said. "You know, frankly, I would think all of the towns would want those businesses on Main Street to start."

Baker said he's glad the incubator was dragged under a microscope, hoping to see further growth for what it offers the county. Part of that includes more outreach from the incubator to small mom and pop businesses, as well as more specialized job training for existing manufacturing. He also wants to see more of a joint effort to keep the incubator's businesses in the county, something he hasn't seen happening.

"Move to other states to expand their businesses," Baker said . "I think there may have been a loss of opportunity there."

Lowe said that possibility is always open.

"The town's community development director and the county's economic director has access to tenants while they're here," Lowe said, "to know a little bit about their business, to meet with them, to see if there are opportunities within the community they can offer them."

Going forward, two county supervisors will rotate, sitting in on the incubator's quarterly meetings to increase communication.

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