By Lori Shull
For a small town in a relatively isolated region of Tennessee, the entrepreneurial landscape in Cookeville is more dynamic than might be expected, though it is hardly cutting-edge.
Probably in large part due to the presence of an engineering-focused university with a strong business school, the environment seems to be becoming more friendly to people who want to start a business of their own.
A change in leadership at Tennessee Tech University has resulted in a greater focus on creativity and the entrepreneurial mindset. Though the university for years has had a Tennessee Small Business Development Center, which offers free and confidential business counseling and seminars on social media marketing, entrepreneurship and start-up finances, it also is building more partnerships with area incubators. The positions of vice president of research and economic development was recently created and the first person to hold the position is actively working to bring new industry to the area, especially by using his connections in India and Birmingham, Alabama.
The university also recently opened a Center for Healthcare Informatics, which is developing new ways to analyze and find connections in healthcare data and to create and spin-off new businesses. One, Cumberland Health Analytics, is already up and running. The university is also in the process of setting up a Rural Policy Institute, which may have an interest in rural economic development.
Outside of the university, the community has other initiatives, some of which have been around for several years, to help bring business back to Cookeville and the surrounding region.
CityScape is a downtown redevelopment initiative that gives grants to businesses in the downtown Cookeville area and helps to keep the streets attractive and friendly through a variety of annual events that double as fundraisers, including installing street lamps and parking signs. It has been around since the 1990s, and in the three years I have lived in Cookeville, I have seen many vacant storefronts reopen in the area CityScape is most active.
The BizFoundry is a start-up incubator that opened within the past two years. It partners with a variety of organizations, including the university, to offer a short-term, intensive boot camp to help would-be entrepreneurs write a solid business plan and build a decent product. It also has a co-working space to allow entrepreneurs to work in a space that is lower cost than setting up their own office space immediately. This is an idea that is taking off nationally.
There is also an organization called Leadership Putnam, which invites people who are gaining prominence in the small town to a series of seminars. It seems to be mostly a networking opportunity.
Many of the entrepreneurs in Cookeville are part of the service industry: there are many florists, salons, restaurants, boutiques and small gyms, especially with a focus on Cross Fit. There are also some engineering and architecture firms and medical offices. There do not seem to be many that are focused on technology.
The media environment in Cookeville is fairly weak and though there are a few entrepreneurs active, they do not seem to be highly profitable and are focused on using the old media model. There are two or three magazines that opened within the last few years. One is based on the culture of the region and I know that several on its small staff are actively looking for other jobs. The other publishes two biannual magazines based on wedding planning and raising a family in the area. Those two publications are run by a photographer and graphic design company and used primarily as a marketing tool. The publications are available free and is supported exclusively by advertising.
Cookeville, especially its chamber of commerce and the university, seem to be more focused on bringing industry to the region. Cookeville has a long industrial past, and when the factories left 15-20 years ago, it took a toll on the region. With the creation of a business park, the region seems committed to bringing that past back to life. Recently, TTI Floor Care, which makes vacuums, announced an expansion to the Cookeville plant that is forecasted to create more than 200 jobs. Academy Sports and Outdoors also announced this summer that it would bring a distribution center to the park, creating more than 700 jobs in the course of the next eight to 10 years.