York hopes businesses will outgrow being home-based, create jobs

joneal@dailypress.com

It was all about growth for CakeAlicious owner Alice Cooke.

But expanding within the confines of her home kitchen proved to be difficult.

"I was just making wedding cakes," Cooke recalled, when she professionally launched her home-based baking company nearly 11 years ago from her kitchen. "Even keeping up with those orders was difficult because we just didn't have enough space."

By 2011, Cooke knew her business was ready for the next level. However, finding the extra start-up capital to get it there proved to be a challenge – especially in recession-weary York County, where at the time, public and private sector jobs were scarce and growth ground to a halt.

But help was on the way via the York County Economic Development Authority.

The authority's Home-based Business Transition Grant Program targeted established and successful small home-based businesses in the county that were ready to move into a commercial location.

Melissa M. Davidson, assistant director of the York County Office of Economic Development, said the development authority set aside $25,000 in 2011 for grants to businesses.

With the help of her husband, Randy, and daughter Ashley Johnson, Cooke won a $2,000 grant in November 2011 — the program's first grant. It allowed Cooke to open a 750-square-foot retail shop in the Wolf Trap Shopping Center along George Washington Memorial Highway in the Grafton area.

"We leased the space and bought all used equipment that we're still using to this day," Cooke said. "It was a tremendous help."

Grant specifics

Since the program's launch nearly four years ago, economic officials have spent $15,467 of the $25,000 alloted for the grant program to 10 home-based businesses, according to a recent county economic development report. That leaves roughly $9,500 in the grant fund.

And with regional economic conditions improving, county officials want more established home-based businesses to take advantage of the program.

"If we run out of the money, we can go back to the EDA and ask for more," Davidson said. "We feel this is a great program, and that there are a lot more businesses that meet the requirements to receive this type of grant."

James W. Noel, Jr., director of the York County Office of Economic Development, said the county tried to keep the application process fairly simple to entice home-based businesses to apply.

The county doesn't ask for business plans or revenue projections. The applicant must possess a York County business license that's been active for a year, and be looking to transition from home to a commercial location in the county.

"If they meet program guidelines they can get the grant regardless of the business plan," Noel said. "We're not experts in analyzing business plans…for them to submit those types of plans really does defeat the purpose for what we're trying to do."

Applicants can receive up to $2,000 that can be used for startup purposes, Davidson said, such as payment on a lease deposit, equipment or office furniture. Selected businesses must purchase, lease or sublease commercially zoned property in York County within six months of signing the grant agreement.

Once applicants have opened their new business, Davidson said, economic officials will check in with the owners within six to 12 months. Businesses that move out of York County within two years of receiving the grant must repay 50 percent of the awarded total.

"If they apply for the grant, and have not leased their space, they will not receive the grant," Noel said.

Real growth

Noel said the area is ripe with home-based businesses that are in growth mode.

"There are, give or take, 4,500 businesses in York County," Noel said. "Of that total 1,500 are commercially based, the remaining are home-based."

Noel said growing home-based businesses could a be a boon for job growth and development.

"When businesses go commercial they create jobs," Noel said. "That helps our tax base, improves our leasing rates and increases values across the board for the county."

Economic officials are working with the York County Chamber of Commerce to host the first annual Home-Based Business Resource Fair and Expo. While details remain in the works, Davidson said the fair will be sometime in fall at the Victory Family YMCA.

"We wanted it to be a gathering where these businesses can learn about the grant, and meet people, like attorneys and brokers, that can help them grow their business beyond their home," Davidson said.

Cooke's business continues to grow beyond wedding cakes, offering cupcakes, coffee, muffins, scones and gelato – a move Cooke said never would have happened without the grant.

"It really changed everything," Cooke said. "We were able to do so much more, and we have a lot more in the works."

And while she is a resident of York County, her business has since moved on to a bigger venue on Casey Boulevard in the New Town development near Williamsburg – outside of the county, a byproduct of success officials knew could happen after recipients remained in York for two years.

Her advice for would-be-applicants: Make the leap.

"Faith and fear do not coexist," Cooke said. "Go with faith and never look back."

O'Neal can be reached by phone at 757-247-4744.

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