A unique coworking and entrepreneurial space called the Gig East Exchange has helped businesses grow in the City of Wilson even during the pandemic, creating 36 jobs through innovation and entrepreneurship.
“Right now, we have all but two of the offices leased out,” said Will Aycock, general manager of Greenlight, which serves as the city’s Gigabit internet provider and manages the Gig East Exchange. “Two of the companies have purchased and renovated buildings in downtown Wilson and will be moving out when their buildings are ready.”
The Exchange, which opened its doors in Fall 2020, has delayed its official grand opening due to the pandemic and has not yet opened its coworking space. Still, city officials are seeing great success in growing and attracting jobs to downtown Wilson.
“It’s obvious the demand is there,” said Aycock.
In 2015, the City of Wilson was a part of a project to encourage growth of innovation capacity. The Institute for Emerging Issues and nine other statewide partners launched the first phase of InnovateNC, an intensive two-year, cross-city learning collaborative supporting five North Carolina communities — Asheville, Greensboro, Pembroke, Wilson, Wilmington and the Carolina Coast—as they expand their innovation economies.
“The team from Wilson working on the project included the Wilson City Manager Grant Goings, Executive Director of Wilson Forward Paula Benson, and Dr. Gary Daynes with Barton College,” said Rebecca Agner, Communications and Marketing Director for the City of Wilson. “This instrumental team created a strategic plan based on an ecosystem of innovation. Out of this plan and several years of convening statewide partners and visiting other thriving communities, the idea for coworking space to help spur innovation and support entrepreneurship in eastern North Carolina was born.”
In 2018, the Golden LEAF Board of Directors awarded $1,100,000 to the City of Wilson through the Community-Based Grants Initiative that made the Exchange possible. The Golden LEAF investment paid for renovating a city-owned building in downtown Wilson to help attract and retain workers with IT skills in Wilson, spark innovation among Wilson’s current employers, and spur entrepreneurship and innovation across Wilson’s demographic range. Because of that investment, the Exchange came to life and currently offers a cooperative fabrication lab, coworking space, training, and support for innovation.
“The Exchange was a dream,” said Agner. “We had a strong vision. It was 100% because of Golden LEAF that we were able to make it happen.”
The Exchange provides opportunities for training through various partners, including RIoT (Raleigh Internet of Things). The RIoT Accelerator Program (RAP) is currently offered at the Exchange. The RAP works to support a variety of entrepreneurial activities and is geared to startups at any stage looking to increase the impact of traditional resources through the RIoT ecosystem.
“The Exchange is home to our RIoT Accelerator Program, and a transitional space for our new and emerging businesses for the larger community and region,” said Aycock. “One of the companies located at the Exchange is getting ready to purchase a building to renovate is a graduate of the first cohort of RIoT. We have our second cohort of RIoT going through the program right now.”
There are plans to have a soft launch of the Exchange’s coworking space in May 2021.
“We don’t want to be competitive with other spaces in the community,” said Aycock. “We want to be a pipeline for growth.”