Where There’s STEAM, There’s Business

Cider Belly doughnuts*, coffee and entrepreneurs helped fuel the first public event at Albany’s new STEAM Garden at 279 Central Ave. last Wednesday – a panel discussion on “Starting, Sustaining, and Growing a Small Business.”

The STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) Garden is housed in the former St. Patrick’s Elementary School, built in 1905. The former St. Patrick’s Church next door is now the Shrine Church of our Lady of the Americas, which is affiliated with Blessed Sacrament Parish further west on Central.

The Central Avenue BID bought the building from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany in 2011 for $200,000. Rehabilitation of two floors is substantially complete, with additional work planned for the upper two floors. Historic 15-over-15 windows in the Co-Work Flex Space (the former gymnasium) will be removed one at a time and restored in an on-site Maker Lab with assistance from the State Historic Preservation Office and Hudson Valley Community College’s trades training program.

Assembly members Patricia Fahy and John McDonald and state Sen. Neil Breslin convened the small business forum along with Anthony Capece, executive director of the Central Avenue Business Improvement District (BID). A panel of entrepreneurs and small business owners spoke about their respective experiences; offered advice; and outlined the challenges that continue to exist for small businesses across New York.

The panel included:
• Cory Nelson, owner, Troy Kitchen;
• Rachelle Pean, co-Founder, Root3d;
• Jennifer Novak, co-Owner, Cider Belly Donuts;
• Anthony Gaddy, co-Founder, Upstate NY Black Chamber of Commerce;
• Pelagie Jackson, owner, Pelagie Hair Braiding; and
• Kim Willey, president, Security Plumbing and Heating Supply.

The audience of about 50 included several small business owners as well as representatives from the City of Albany, the Capital Region Chamber of Commerce and other local organizations.

Capece opened the program by noting that the STEAM Garden had just received its certificate of occupancy the prior week, and that this was the first time many people were seeing the space since kids played basketball in it years ago.

Panelists took turns talking about their businesses. Regardless of whether they were startups, mid-cycle or “mature” businesses, collaboration was the buzzword of the morning.

Nelson noted that some 18 restaurants had cycled through Troy Kitchen, with more on the way. Pean stressed the importance of working with others who, like her, are inclined to give back to the community. Jackson, who opened her business 20 years ago as an immigrant from Cameroon, expressed how good it felt to make people “more beautiful.” Gaddy spoke of seeking out partnership opportunities with other Black Chambers in the region and across the country.

The legislators also pressed the panelists to share some of the challenges they faced.

Willey said that as a business that supplied construction projects, he was looking for a more level playing field in the competitive contract space.

Novak described mountains of paperwork and lengthy delays in closing on a loan for the Cider Belly location opening soon on Fuller Road. She also cited the prohibitively high cost of health insurance and noted that while she provides profit sharing and retirement savings options for her employees, the business is unable to foot the bill for group health insurance.

Fahy closed by inviting feedback after the meeting and said that she and her colleagues are considering holding additional Small Business Forums around the region in conjunction with local chambers and BIDs. “Despite all the obstacles and despite all the challenges, I am incredibly encouraged…we are getting it done,” she said.

For more information on the Central Avenue BID visit www.centralbid.com. For more information on the STEAM Garden, visit www.steamgarden.org.

*Yes, that’s how they spell it.

Colleen M. Ryan has always been a storyteller. An innovative communications professional with experience in government, nonprofit and business sectors, she recently launched CMR Communications.

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