Fund to honor James Rouse, help small business development


As part of a gala salute to developer James Rouse, Howard County's business community plans to launch a fund that would bear the Columbia founder's name and assist small businesses in getting started or expanding.

Dubbed the Jim Rouse Entrepreneurial Fund, the effort is being guided by the Howard County Chamber of Commerce as part of a three-pronged program to foster small businesses in the county.

One prong has already been established -- three volunteer boards of directors that offer counseling to small businesses that are in trouble or lack direction. The boards are not compensated financially but do provide leadership much the way real corporate boards do. Six businesses have availed themselves of the service thus far, chamber officials said.

With the Rouse fund as the second prong, the chamber plans to move forward with a third component of providing incubator space for fledgling enterprises.

Discussions about a possible incubator have been held with County Executive Charles I. Ecker and Howard County Community College President Dwight Burrill.

The chamber would like the county or community college to provide space and technical assistance for the incubator. No commitments have been made, but officials are optimistic that such a facility can be up and running by 1993.

Chamber President Earl Armiger said the three-level program is a "throwback to the founding concept of Columbia" and offers a comprehensive approach to economic development that has greater potential than a piecemeal effort.

"The promise of Columbia was that there would be all kinds of opportunity for people of all walks of life," Armiger said. "There was both the promise of housing and the promise of economic development."

Armiger credited Rouse with creating a community where business could thrive.

"Few of us would be here today were it not for the opportunity provided by Columbia, which was really the vision of Jim Rouse," he said.

The recession has increased the need for small business assistance because many workers who have been laid off attempt to start their own companies, he added.

The chamber plans to launch the Rouse fund during a tribute to the developer planned for May 27. The salute is the first of a series of events planned to coincide with the 25th anniversary of Columbia.

The fund, which would be incorporated and would operate separate from the chamber, has an "informal goal" of raising $1 million within five years, Armiger said. Some of the money will come in the form of direct cash donations, while the bulk of financing would be achieved through loans and grants.

The fund's target group -- small businesses -- is a natural for the chamber, 85 percent of whose members own companies with five employees or less.

"We envision that this fund would exist for those who have a good idea but don't necessarily have the track record to see those ideas through fruition," Armiger said, adding that the fund would supplement what is already being done by banks and state government.

Incubators to assist some small businesses by providing low-cost overhead have been successful elsewhere.

Ecker called the incubator a "good program" and said he has asked county economic development officials to set up a committee to explore the idea and investigate the possibility of the county providing space for the facility.

Burrill, the community college president, called the chamber proposal "excellent," particularly in light of the current economy.

The community college would work in cooperation with the county on all aspects of the proposal but would not be able to make direct financial contributions, Burrill said.

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