The Mill to bring small businesses together

  • Posted: Saturday, August 24, 2013 12:46 a.m.
    UPDATED: Saturday, August 24, 2013 5:43 a.m.

In a real sense, Catie Rabun grew up in downtown Aiken.

Her grandmother, Debbie Erb, once operated a women’s shoe store. Her uncle, Sam Erb, established and ran the Westside Bowery downtown for 32 years before announcing its closing earlier this week. Around the corner, Rabun’s parents, Maggie and David Sacks, have operated Newberry Hall since 2001, and they live in the area too. Now Rabun and her dad have used the first letters of their names to create Caradasa, LLC. They are planning their first venture – The Mill at Park, an unusual project intended to attract to downtown new micro-businesses, entrepreneurs and small, established firms.

Rabun and Sacks currently are renovating the former Regions Bank operations center. With the approximately 19,000-square foot building, they will invite fledging companies and others seeking a new venue in a choice of spaces to meet their needs.

Key players have joined this endeavor as well. USC Aiken and the Small Business Development Center will provide their own expertise, along with student involvement and small business services.

“They would add something we could not,” Rabun said. “The university could provide free business workshops and help with business plans or connections with research. We quickly realized if we could bring them to the table and provide the hardware, it would be a no-brainer.”

The USCA chancellor, Dr. Sandra Jordan, and the business dean, Dr. Clifton Jones, arrived on the campus midway through 2012. They soon found similar interests in looking for ways to give the university a downtown presence.

That discussion coincided with another – the possibility of introducing an MBA program at the university. That initiative specifically would target people with baccalaureate degrees in fields other than business. When the USCA administrators learned about

Caradasa’s concept in recent months, the two ideas began to merge, with master’s candidates and the School of Business faculty providing assistance to The Mill tenants and the MBA students getting solid experience of their own in the process.

“This seemed to be a clear pathway for a partnership,” Jordan said. “We could help small businesses through The Mill concept to expand, grow and deepen their abilities.”

Again, Rabun is especially intrigued with downtown areas. She chose the University of Miami through that interest. So much in that city is based on mixed use and is walkable. Rabun had studied about such community offices there.

After returning to the area about two years ago, she shared her thoughts with a few others, but wasn’t ready to jump in at first. When

Rabun saw the Regions Bank property, her interest returned. She was appointed to a Blue Ribbon Panel hosted by the Greater Aiken Chamber of Commerce to seek new strategies the Chamber could pursue. With the assistance of Chamber President David Jameson, Rabun contacted others with similar concepts.

She told me, “Maybe this is something we ought to try,” said Sacks. “The opportunity came with this building for her vision of what we need in Aiken.”

Rabun knew she could not provide the resources that prospective tenants would require for business-related services. Then USCA joined the conversation and so did the Small Business Development Center, located on the USCA campus.

Actually, the center’s director, Laura DiSano, worked closely with Rabun before the university got involved, Clifton Jones said.

DiSano and her staff, he said, “will play an important role in this. They have been providing free volunteer consulting services for small businesses in the Aiken area for a number of years ... This is something they do every day. In this part of the process, they will reach out to small businesses to help them in a more systematic way.”

As the word about The Mill has spread, Rabun said she and her father quickly heard from people who seemed excited about it. They are looking for a broad spectrum of businesses that can feed off each other.

The available space in The Mill will include 10-by-10 offices for one person and larger ones to accommodate four or five employees. Two areas will offer about 1,000 square feet for 10 to 15 people. In addition, the building also can provide virtual offices when needed for those who work at home who need an area other than a coffee shop to meet with clients, Rabun said. The tenants can share the expenses of running an office and also can collaborate with each other.

USCA’s MBA proposal has been approved by the USC System’s board of Trustees, Jones said. The S.C. Commission for Higher Education will make the final decision in mid-September.

“We are hopeful and optimistic that we can start the program in 2014,” Jones said.

The university conducted a survey about the MBA for students in other fields. About 200 students drawn from majors across campus took part, and 50 percent expressed interest in the master’s program.

“There would be opportunities for undergraduate students as well to engage in real-world projects with tenants of the building,” Jones said. “We envision that some of our MBA students could transition to a business, while some would currently have small businesses who have chosen to seek out the MBA.”

The whole approach, Rabun said, is to encourage the people utilizing The Mill with the idea of being together, that they can support each other. She and Sacks considered a number of possible names for the building and its business services.

“The ‘mill’ kept coming back to me,” Rabun said. “The building was not that beautiful before, but it’s beautiful right now. The more I looked, the more it looks like a mill. In my mind, it invokes a term that refers to work and progress. The mills in the area have closed down, but they were icons of success. It’s a catchy name.”

Senior writer Rob Novit is the Aiken Standard’s education reporter and has been with the newspaper since September 2001. He is a native of Walterboro and majored in journalism at the University of Georgia.

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