The Manhattan Area Chamber of Commerce is exploring how to create incubator space in Aggieville for startup businesses.

The concept is part of an effort to invigorate the Manhattan area’s entrepreneurial environment and boost economic growth locally and regionally. Chamber President and CEO Jason Smith says these plans stem from the work of Region Reimagined, formerly known as the Greater Manhattan Project, an economic development group initiative in collaboration with communities in Riley, Pottawatomie and Geary Counties.

Manhattan Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Jason Smith. Photo by Brandon Peoples/KMAN

“Most of our larger […] private employers started as or even are still locally owned businesses — you think of Manko, you think of what’s now Hanes Brand [which]started as GTM, you think of CivicPlus,” says Smith. “It takes an intentional effort, though, for those things to continue to flourish in your community.”

The initiative proposes a three-prong approach that aims to improve the region’s retention of locally-grown talent, improve business diversity and conditions for local entrepreneurs getting started. Smith says the first phase addressing that latter aim of Region Reimagined was seen in the work of Spark MHK, now in its second year of existence.

“Phase two and three of the entrepreneurship effort, though, is going to take a lot more resources and effort,” says Smith. “One of those is we have got to develop some capital for entrepreneurship and startups.”

Smith says they’re considering the possibility of loans, grants and programs for disadvantaged businesses in addition to a physical space for startups to get their feet under them.

“Right now, we have a lot of entrepreneurship things going on scattered around the community — how do we get all that merged together so that, as our consultant said, we have a front door,” says Smith. “So if you’re interested in starting a business or you’re interested in doing anything related to entrepreneurship, [then]Manhattan has a front door that you can walk in and say hey, I need to know fill-in-the-blank and somebody there can help you.”

Smith says ideas were discussed at Wednesday’s Chamber investors meeting. Something noted in discussions with investors and consultants was the importance of creating such a space in a walkable area of the city.

Concept art of the planned parking garage in Aggieville. (Courtesy of the City of Manhattan)

“One of the areas that we’re looking at specifically is […] is there something we can do with the garage at Aggieville, which is creating some ground floor space,” Smith says. “We had a blue-ribbon panel committee that came together that had entrepreneurs of all kinds […], and they laid their thoughts out there and it looks like we are going to move forward with the idea that we should create a space in Aggieville.

Smith says there’s a multitude of ideas regarding how that space should look, what it should be called, and numerous other details, but ultimately the goal is to ensure it’s an inclusive opportunity.

“We have inherent advantages in Manhattan to be able to do that,” says Smith. “Including students at Kansas State, including really talented men and women at Fort Riley, kind of an entrepreneurial spirit throughout the community and we need to really take advantage of that and see what we can do to generate more startup buzz in this community.”

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