Chatham SPARK program receives ‘a lot’ of interest with diverse business proposals

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Following a seven-week application period, Central Carolina Community College’s 12-spot entrepreneurial development program, Chatham SPARK, has received 44 applicants, according to CCCC-Chatham’s Small Business Center coordinator Phillip Pappas.

Though “not quite to the point of overwhelming,” Pappas said it’s on par with the level of interest that the Real Investment in Sanford Entrepreneurs (RISE) program first received after its launch in 2020. Designed to help Lee County entrepreneurs launch local businesses, the RISE program provided the model for Chatham SPARK.

“I believe in their first year, they had around 50,” Pappas told the News + Record. “So we’re trending I think just about right, and I suspect that will grow. Unfortunately, there are only 12 positions for the class, so I’m hoping the next iteration will get even more (applicants), and it will snowball.”

A free eight-week program, Chatham SPARK seeks to empower budding and beginning entrepreneurs to create successful local businesses through weekly classes offering insight into financing, legal considerations, taxes, marketing, bookkeeping and most importantly, business plans. The Chatham SBC, the Chatham Chamber of Commerce and Mountaire Farms came together late last year to develop and launch the program.

Classes start on Tuesday, March 1, and will be held each Tuesday from 6 to 9 p.m. at Central Carolina Community College’s Siler City Center through May 3. Only aspiring entrepreneurs or those who have been in business for less than two years are eligible for one of the program’s 12 spots.

According to Pappas, the plan is to eventually offer the SPARK program to local entrepreneurs multiple times a year, much like Sanford RISE, though he doubts the 12-student limit will change.

“The issue that we have, why we decided on 12, we’re trying to keep the ratio from speaker to students low,” he said. “Part of the program is getting that one-on-one interaction with the subject matter experts that we have coming in, so the fear is, if we open it up too much, you kind of lose that. That’s one of the core benefits of this program.”

Participants will also compete against each other to receive a $5,000 reimbursable grant from Mountaire Farms for rent, utilities and/or renovations. Participants may present their business plans on the last day of classes to a panel of business professionals, who will choose the grant awardee. The reimbursable grant is only available to entrepreneurs who have yet to open a brick-and-mortar location and who launch their businesses in Siler City within a year of completing the SPARK program.

“My guess would be just based on historical evidence that not everyone in the class is going to be ready to move ahead in 12 months,” Pappas said. “You know, they’re kind of in the exploratory phase of starting the business and you know, they’ve got a hobby or skill they’re trying to turn into a business. They need more of the technical assistance, so they might not be ready to open up in 12 months.”

While Chatham SPARK’s inaugural session won’t offer classes in Spanish for Spanish-speaking entrepreneurs, the program’s backers plan to offer the class bilingually in its next iteration, according to Cindy Poindexter, president of the Chatham Chamber.

The application deadline for the program’s inaugural class closed on Jan. 31 — and since then, Poindexter and others have been working to assemble a diverse review committee to evaluate applications based on several key criteria. First and foremost among them? How well a business proposal addresses Chatham’s local needs.

“Which ones fill a specific need that the county needs more than others? That’s going to be a big one,” Pappas said. “[There’s also] potential employment numbers. Most small businesses in this country have one individual or no employees, but for Chatham County, you know, the idea is more employment. So, will somebody’s proposal employ multiple people versus somebody that’s kind of trying to get their hobby off the ground?”

Pappas hopes to send out acceptance letters to chosen applicants within the next two weeks. As of Wednesday, Feb. 9,  the program's leadership has selected the seven members of the application review committee.

Most applications they’ve received, he said, come predominantly from Siler City- and Pittsboro-based entrepreneurs — and the concepts they present are a lot more diverse than he’d been expecting.

“I was expecting, you know, 20 applications to be restaurants and food trucks, you know, that kind of thing,” he said, “but some are apparel goods, you know, handmade clothing, handmade accessories. Some are retail, you know, restaurant, food truck-based. Some are wellness-based. Some are counseling-based. [It’s] a pretty good representation, I think, of the county in general, so that’s been exciting.”

For his part, Pappas hopes to see a mix of people in the class — from those who are just starting out to those who want to grow a one-year-old business.

“We’re getting close,” he said. “I’m very excited to actually see this happen. I know Sanford RISE has just gained in popularity in the few years that it’s been going, so I’m hoping that we [will] have the same level of interest.”

Reporter Victoria Johnson can be reached at victoria@chathamnr.com.

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