Business Incubator Coming to Spencer in 2026

by | Jun 29, 2023 | Municipalities

Innovation is alive and kicking in Spencer. By 2026, a business incubator and center for innovation and entrepreneurship for all of Rowan County will open there. Its home will be the now-shuttered First Baptist Church on Fifth Street. The massive 62-room, 40,000+ square foot church built in 1926 was closed in 2016, a victim of declining church membership. Spencer civic leaders Beth Nance and Susan Morris bought the church with the hopes of it becoming a town community center. Now it’s on track to be that and more.

The now-unoccupied Spencer First Baptist Church

“Spencer has a rich history of innovation, all focused on business,” said Mayor Jonathan Williams. For proof, Williams cited Dr. Tom Stanback, who in 1911 first produced his famous headache powder on Fifth Street, Spencer. Spencer’s innovative spirit sparked again in 1929 when the Spencer Watchmaking School opened its doors. In its day, an accurate railroad watch was as essential as a computer for keeping trains on time and on the right track. During its 39 years, over 1,300 men and women, many disabled veterans, completed their yearlong training as watchmakers.

Sepia image of people sitting at long tables with a supervisor overseeing

The idea for a center for innovation and entrepreneurship has been in the works for years. Its home was to be at the Idea Center in West End Plaza, the former Salisbury Mall now owned by Rowan County. County commissioners, however, decided to move several departments into the space set aside for the incubator. Even if space were available, the mall appealed more to retired walkers than aspiring entrepreneurs. After consulting with Nance and Morris, Mayor Williams approached the Idea Center board in 2021 and suggested the empty church as a home for the long-delayed center. “That idea really invigorated the board,” said Williams.

In early 2023, the Town of Spencer, the church owners and the Idea Center board finalized agreements for the new center. Town staff spent the summer of ‘23 considering renovation options and programs, exploring historic tax credits, assessing the church’s condition and conducting stakeholder meetings. Their next hurdle was fundraising.   

The new center will make life easier for current and upcoming entrepreneurs. A portion of the center will benefit the already self-employed by furnishing shared equipment, ideas and knowledge. For early-stage entrepreneurs, the center will provide access to mentors, investors and others to nurture them through their embryonic phase.

This being Spencer, there are other more innovative plans afoot. “First, we are looking at an in-house childcare facility for those enrolled at the center and for the larger community,” said Town Manager Peter Franzese. “One of the barriers to success, especially for female entrepreneurs, is quality childcare. We want to take that barrier away.” Also planned is a culinary incubator for those new to the restaurant business. “The restaurant/food/beverage industry is an incredibly difficult industry to break into,” said Mayor Williams. “It is important that those new to running a restaurant not only know how to cook and prepare meals, but also understand the finance, accounting, marketing and wait staff management side of the business.” 

The center will be powered by Flywheel, a Winston-Salem company that provides the programming, expertise, culture, software and organization to make co-working and business incubators click. Now with centers in Concord, North Carolina, and Greenville, South Carolina, Flywheel is the finishing school of the business world.

Current plans call for the Rowan Idea Center to serve as the operating entity with Flywheel providing all the services and leasing the church from Morris and Nance. The Town of Spencer has contributed the initial seed money for the new center and will become one of the stakeholders once the center is up and running. The church is large enough to also serve as a town community center.  

According to officials at Flywheel, the church is the perfect building for an incubator. “It has character and a hip vibe that Flywheel likes,” said Williams. “Their Concord office is in a renovated old bank.”

Come 2026, Spencer can add “hip” to its already “innovative” resume.  

About The Author

Pete Prunkl

After teaching and working for several non-profits, Pete Prunkl found his niche in writing human interest stories. That includes the history of antiques and the people who buy and own them. Pete has written for the Maine Antique Digest, Our State magazine, Antique Roadshow Insider, Salisbury the Magazine and other publications for over 25 years. He is the author of the book, Beyond the Hedges: Historic Salisbury Foundation and the Preservation Movement.