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The Sky City Initiative wasn’t formed to create jobs, per se. It doesn’t need to.
Blount County’s unemployment rate sat at 3.3 percent in Sept. 2018, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and has dipped below three percent throughout the year.
Rachel Buchanan, director of economic development for the Blount Partnership, helps recruit industries and create new jobs in Blount County. But what if everyone is already employed?
“It provides a good opportunity for us to focus on growing our small businesses and growing entrepreneurship in Blount County,” she said.
The Sky City Initiative was formed to create an ecosystem for supporting and attracting entrepreneurs and startups, said Sky City partner Lane Shuler, the spokesperson for the group.
It’s an independent community effort with representatives from the Blount Partnership, Maryville College, small businesses, Blount County Library, Teknovation and other partners. They are in the process of securing a 501(c)(3), said Initiative member Jeremy LaDuke.
The goal? Provide resources for people with business ideas, owners looking to grow their small businesses or founders looking to connect with other entrepreneurs.
The group held an inaugural round table event in May to gauge the community’s interest. Buchanan said she was hoping for 40 people — 130 showed up.
Small groups discussed what could be done to support entrepreneurs and self-employed people in the county.
“It justified a need to at least further investigate what our community needs,” she said.
The group walked away with three areas to pursue: a speaker series, business mentoring and the need for Blount County’s first coworking space.
A hub of entrepreneurship
There’s a large contingent of Blount County founders who work out of coffee shops, Shuler said. The Sky City coworking space could change that.
The Initiative hopes to open a 4,000-6,000 square foot coworking office sometime in 2019.
“It provides, of course, affordable space for startups and entrepreneurs to work, but not even just that,” Buchanan said. “It’s a community. It’s an ecosystem of people.”
The project is still taking shape — Shuler said they have identified two potential locations for the space. Buchanan said the initiative is still figuring out funding. Right now, the initiative is an independent community group with no umbrella organization.
The coworking space would include shared tables, private offices, recreation space, couches and multi-use space for meetings or presentations.
A rendering of a potential space on the Sky City website included meeting rooms, a kitchen and break area, reception desk and a mini-market.
“There are several coworking models that have helped communities like ours become hubs of entrepreneurship,” the Sky City website stated.
At least 25 small businesses and startups are on a waiting list for the space, Shuler said. Part of the appeal is the ability for founders to work together through the processes of starting a business.
“We hope that the coworking space will increase economic vitality in the county outside of the jobs market,” Shuler said.
The group hopes to provide a space for people working in Knox County but living in Blount. This space might offer them the ability to work remotely.
The coworking office will sell daily use memberships for about $300 a month, Shuler estimated, and rates would go up for private offices.
The group held a “Brains & Grains” speaker series event on Nov. 15, inviting Blount County entrepreneurs for another round table discussion. Established small businesses like Vienna Coffee, Substance Solutions, Russell and Abbott and CPR Choice were on hand to share their paths to success.
“The general consensus is this needs to happen,” Buchanan said. “It’s a great example of how Blount County pulls together to accomplish something.”
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