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Sunday, August 21,2011

Variety of local businesses thrive thanks to ACEnet

By Jim Phillips
Photo Credits: Dustin Franz
Photo Caption: Mandy Maughmer, owner of Perform Best Fitness, poses for a portrait Friday in her gym.

If you know only a little bit about the Appalachian Center for Economic Networks, commonly known as ACEnet, you may associate it mainly with the incubation of food-related businesses.

But while ACEnet's Food Ventures Center on Columbus Road which provides a shared, FDA-approved production facility used currently by 108 local food businesses is a big part of the organization, it's not all of it by any means.

ACEnet's Athens incubator facility, at the same site as the Food Ventures Center, hosts 25 small, mostly non-food businesses including a Christian radio station, a number of massage therapists, a workout/martial arts gym, and a computer-services firm. Some companies simply rent office space from the incubator.

"It really varies," said Leslie Schaller, ACEnet's director of programming.

The businesses listed as tenants of the Athens incubator include four that are described as some variety of "service" firm; two as food; 14 as "wellness"; one as "technology"; and one as "retail."

The organization also runs an incubator in Nelsonville with six tenants, the largest of which is EdMap, which produces educational materials.

A visit to the Athens incubator last week showed the variety of innovative businesses being nurtured in the incubator. The NEWS spoke to owners of a business that makes herbal remedies from locally grown plants; a small computer-services firm; a gym that offers fitness and martial-arts training; an antique and second-hand shop; and a maker of pasta sauces.

LAUREN GENTER'S ANCIENT ROOTS uses locally grown products to mix up herbal remedies for coughs, colds, skin conditions and other ailments. She said she's been working with and studying herbs for years, and decided to turn her skills into a business.

"I read everything I could get my hands on, and continue to go to various classes and workshops," she said. "I'm careful to always give the customer the power to make their own decision on what they choose to try, or choose to use."

Luckily, with a thriving local agricultural market, Genter said, she's able to use local plants for her concoctions, such as locally grown gumweed.

Her market has been growing "little by little," she said, and she recently posted a video about her company on the Internet that's reportedly sparking some increased interest.

"It has really gone from making things for my family, to having a legitimate business," she said.

JACOB HAND IS head of client development and technology consulting for Matrix J Technologies, a small computer services firm based in the incubator.

The company, which is owned by Josh Kolbe, rents space from ACEnet but doesn't use its incubation services. It does repairs, setting up networks, and just about anything you need done with computers.

"We work with a lot of the businesses in town," Hand noted.

The business, which Hand estimated is doing annual business in the $100,000 range, is growing, and will soon expand outside ACEnet's facility, he said.

"We're growing outside of this space," he said. "We're kind of looking for a storefront right now."

PERFORM BEST FITNESS is a small gym owned by Mandy Maughmer and her partner, James Whiteman. It offers fitness training, sports performance training and a variety of martial-arts training. She said the business has struggled a bit as a startup, but is starting to improve.

"It's been tough," she said. "Advertising has been our big struggle."

Some business has come the company's way from local school sports programs, such as the Alexander High School football team, which has taken advantage of the gym's strength and performance training. It has also gotten a grant from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to do wellness outreach programs locally, Maughmer said.

Without ACEnet, she said, her business might not exist. "First and foremost, we can't afford rent anywhere else," she admitted. "And of course, we meet people through ACEnet."

ATHENS UPSCALE ATTIC is, as the name implies, a rather elegant version of a thrift store. "We have a variety of antiques, gently used furniture, jewelry" and more, explained Linda Markham, who owns the business with Vernon "Ted" Fisher. "What you see (here in the store) is exactly what we have." The store has also begun stocking a line of wellness supplements, she said. ACEnet has been a boon, she suggested.

"They've been very supportive," she said. "They really helped us get going."

ONE OF ACENET'S bigger success stories may be Vino De Milo, which uses its Food Ventures Center in the production of its wine-based pasta sauces and other products.

Owner Jonathan Milo Leal said his business is taking off, doing annual revenues in the $250,000 to $750,000 range, and exporting product to countries from New Zealand to Kuwait. He attributes some of his success to ACEnet, as well as the thriving local food scene.

"I tell a lot of folks, 'A lot of people don't have something like this in their backyard,'" he said. If you want to start a specialized food business, he added, and you don't have access to a facility like ACEnet, you have to find another company to share production facilities.

"Without ACEnet, we would not be here," he said.


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