Words and photos by Ericka Kastner
It’s an unlikely scenario. A woman from Edinburgh, Scotland lands in the U.S. in 1980 on a scholarship to attend a graduate program in aeronautics and astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Thirty-five years later, she purchases and restores a hundred-year old building in Salida, with plans to operate a business incubator in the basement of her what will be her NAVSYS field office.
But this is exactly what Alison Brown has done.
She is joined in her efforts by what many would describe as the Chaffee County power team: Wendell Pryor, executive director of the Chaffee County Economic Development Corporation, Marilyn Laverty, director of the Small Business Development Center founded at Western State College in Gunnison and Mark Wiard, of Wiard Web Works, known by many as the local web guru. Together they are out to change the face of small business in the county for local entrepreneurs. Perhaps more importantly, they aim to bring high tech jobs to an area known until now mostly for tourism based small business.
Alison’s idea for the Salida incubator began in 2013. Her plan was to follow the same model she’d been using at an incubator she’d created at her NAVSYS headquarters in Monument. Her goal was to provide a space for entrepreneurs operating home-based business to grow. She says an incubator creates an environment that allows business owners to network with each other, all the while providing the necessary infrastructure enabling their businesses to expand.
The incubator framework also provides a high tech environment and high speed Internet to small mountain towns. Alison hopes doing this will bring high tech jobs to the Salida and allow people in these fields to work remotely in a rural area.
She chose Salida for the field office and incubator because she’d begun to spend a lot of time in Chaffee County and is now a full-time resident. Additionally, she already had two NAVSYS employees living in Salida and Leadville.
Alison purchased the Twitchell Building, where the incubator is housed in the basement at First and F Streets, herself, but funds for the restoration came from the Rural Economic Development Grant Fund. Locally, CEO Paul Erickson, of Sangre De Cristo Electric, and commercial loan officer Joe Smith with High Country Bank, were instrumental in her successfully obtaining the grant.
Regarding the renovation of the incubator space, Alison says it was truly a mess when she acquired it. The basement pre-dated the building above ground, and it hadn’t been used for any functional purposes since before the 1900’s. To create a community training space and micro offices for the incubator, massive amounts of debris had to be moved out and structural supports in the interior were brought up to code.
The entire process took about two years, and Alison says the city government was very supportive of her endeavors. She contracted with Natural Habitats, a Salida design and build firm, and used local laborers for the rehabilitation of the building.
Alison hosted a grand opening on May 12, but fiber optic cable still needs to be installed and an access system will be set up for the offices. While NAVSYS is currently the only office in the Twitchell Building, Alison says the incubator has already generated quite a bit of interest and she expects the micro offices to fill up quickly.
In addition to bringing high tech jobs to Chaffee County, Alison has also been influential in giving local students opportunities to work with 3-D printers and has had a hand in developing the Boys and Girls Clubs of Chaffee County’s STEM program.