This story was written for WRAL TechWire Innovator partner the Town of Holly Springs.

When you think of tech towns or entrepreneurial hubs, Silicon Valley, New York and other large cities may instinctively come to mind.

But if the Triangle’s American Underground campuses or its Research Triangle Park have taught us anything, it’s that business and innovation are right in our own backyard. This rings true for places outside the Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill metropolises too — especially for towns like Holly Springs.

Almost three decades ago, Holly Springs was a sleepy town of fewer than 1,000 people. Today, it boasts 35,000 residents, a co-working space for its community of remote workers and business owners, and has several economic development projects in the works.

It’s also the first town in North Carolina to become a Certified Entrepreneurial Community under the program’s new redesign.

Creating a place for entrepreneurship to thrive

The Certified Entrepreneurial Community program “is an economic development strategy that helps communities become entrepreneur-ready.” The CEC program motto is to create “a place where entrepreneurs succeed.”

The program helps a city decide what initiatives would make it more entrepreneur-friendly, and then creates a system and strategy to help those visions become a reality.

Originally developed in 2007 by AdvantageWest, a regional economic development organization, it certified 10 communities over the next eight years until AdvantageWest closed in 2015.

Creative Economic Development Consulting, a firm that addresses economic development issues for communities, purchased the program that same year because they couldn’t bear to see it die out.

“We knew the value of this program. We knew the impact that it could have on communities. We didn’t want to see it just fade away as AdvantageWest was closing,” said Crystal Morphis, founder and CEO of Creative EDC. “So we saw an opportunity [and] purchased the program. We made a lot of changes to it.”

With the help of Entrepreneurial Places and Innovative Economies, Creative EDC redesigned the program to implement changes such as reducing the time frame for certification and engaging the community earlier in the process.

Cities who want to become a CEC must apply; and if chosen, those cities must then undergo a multistep process prior to certification.

“To kick off the process, we perform an ecosystem analysis. That’s a data dive on what their entrepreneurial economy looks like,” Morphis explained. “Step two is really looking at what we call the demand and the supply side. So, what do entrepreneurs want in this community? What are they missing? The resource providers will be the supply side — so people that are providing services and support to entrepreneurs.

“The third step is really an action plan.”

In Holly Springs, each of the task forces identified a task they wanted to accomplish over a six-month time frame.

“For Holly Springs, that was raising community awareness and bringing promotion to the community,” Morphis said of the downtown village district. “And then also to identify resources and make them available to entrepreneurs in the community.”

Holly Springs comes up with a game plan

Irena Krstanovic, economic development director for the Town of Holly Springs, said the success of economic development is based on relationships made with community partners.

“We have worked hard on establishing those relationships with our local businesses —  understanding their needs and really listening to what they have to say,” she said. “Eighty percent of job growth comes from your existing businesses, and I think that is something that is often overlooked.”

For Holly Springs, who holds its current businesses very dear, it’s just as much about retention as it is about expansion. Business owners and community stakeholders were involved in the CEC process as the two task forces were formed.

“Our coach encouraged us to reach out to service providers in the community and to reach out to entrepreneurs,” said Anna Johnston, economic development project manager for the Town of Holly Springs.

As a group, they identified opportunities and gaps within the Holly Springs community.

“The two biggest gaps we saw were downtown economic development and support of entrepreneurs,” Johnston explained. “Knowing that our entrepreneurs want to be engaged — we were happy to see the entrepreneurs’ eagerness to get involved. I believe this stems from the fact that many of them live in town and have a great respect for the community. They desire to see the town grow and they want to play a part. They chose to invest in Holly Springs; it’s all that we can do to help them grow here.”

She added, “Our role is important to them, and their role is important to us, so we should work together. Starting the CEC program in Holly Springs was our approach to see how we could get our entrepreneurs engaged.”

Krstanovic said all the town really did was give its people the platform to run with the initiative and “they took it with both hands.”

Holly Springs Race Fest

The Town of Holly Springs hosted Race Fest, a festival that shows downtown Holly Springs is a “great place to live, work and play.” (Photo Courtesy of the Town of Holly Springs)

Holly Springs honed in on two specific initiatives:

  1. Help local business owners and workers find and leverage business resources that serve them and Holly Springs at-large.
  2. Create events and physical plans for development to make downtown Holly Springs a “great place to live, work and play.”

Morphis pointed out that the entire process is completely volunteer-based and the fact that the energy from Holly Springs town officials and residents never waned, speaks volumes.

“They had a few key community champions, but, behind that there were a lot of volunteers on those two task teams that really brought a lot of expertise and really gave time to the effort,” she said. “The reason I’m so excited about Holly Springs is because we feel it will be sustained. Too often in an effort like this, if it is consultant-led … when the consultant leaves, the effort will fade away, because there’s nobody championing it at the local level. That’s not the case here. You have community champions that are committed.”

To address its first initiative, Holly Springs created an entrepreneur-specific website they refer to as a “wayfinding resource.” It includes town permitting and zoning information links, licenses and regulations for various industries in North Carolina, courses, tools and other resources to help start, run or expand your business in Holly Springs.

The town is also working to facilitate face-to-face networking opportunities between entrepreneurs and stakeholders. In the short-term, the team in charge of creating a more vibrant downtown is tasked with creating buzz about downtown events. In the long-term, Holly Springs is looking to create an office and commercial development complex in the Village District. In 2019, they will have two new mixed-use buildings, totaling roughly 100,000 SF, to serve the community. One is called The Block and the other, Town Hall Commons.

According to Morphis, being a CEC says to businesses, people and entrepreneurs that Holly Springs is a place that is “open and ready for business.”

She noted that one of the town’s struggles was to set itself apart from other communities in the Raleigh metro area and this helps it do just that.

“It shows how serious this community is to grow and provide every opportunity for the businesses to thrive in Holly Springs,” Krstanovic explained. “If you are focusing on your existing businesses and helping them grow and succeed in your community, you have your act together. I think everyone would like to be part of [such] an ecosystem.”

This story was written for WRAL TechWire Innovator partner the Town of Holly Springs.