[caption id="attachment_52688" align="alignright" width="286" caption="Paul Hicks, Keith Caldwell, Jeri Gill"][/caption]

NAPA COUNTY – Efforts to create a first-ever business incubator in Napa County could take another step forward in the coming weeks as project members seek additional startup funding from the county Board of Supervisors and the Napa City Council.

That contribution, up to $10,000 each, will go towards what planners expect to be the $38,000 necessary to develop a business plan and establish nonprofit status for the program, expected to occupy part of the building that formerly housed a Japan Airlines training facility at the Napa County Airport.

That building is now owned by the county, opening up possibilities for a public-private partnership that proponents said could include favorable rent and other support for the proposed incubator known as “Trellis Napa Valley.”

When in operation, the program will aim to support a diversity of high-tech companies and high-paying jobs that would complement industries in a county known for an intense focus on the wine and hospitality sectors, said Paul Hicks, who leads the incubator effort and will serve as the eventual nonprofit entity’s president.

“Our goal is to fill this thing as soon as possible,” said Mr. Hicks. “This has been moving along very quickly.”

The proposed incubator, which Mr. Hicks said could be operational in as little as one year, would follow models of other successful programs, offering inexpensive rent and support for companies in their early stages. The group plans to ask for a $5,000 contribution from both the city and county, with a pledge for an additional $5,000 from each at the completion of the business plan.

In 10 years, Mr. Hicks said he hopes that the program could foster 100 new businesses and 1,500 new jobs with average pay of $50 an hour.

Those jobs are particularly needed in the so-called Airport Industrial Area, part of the greater South Napa area. While the county has generally outperformed its neighbors in terms of average unemployment, the overall 9.2 percent rate is overshadowed by the approximately 14 percent rate in the southern part of the county.

That rate coexists with a large amount of commercial vacancy in the area. According to a report by the incubator project, South Napa’s industrial vacancies are 12.8 percent, with 27 percent office space vacancy. The last land sale in the area was 18 months ago, according to the report.

“In Napa County, we have not had to put much in the way of economic development. But in the last few years, we have lost a significant number of jobs in the Airport Industrial Area,” said Keith Caldwell, chair of the Napa County Board of Supervisors.

With the area’s available commercial space, Mr. Caldwell said that startups graduating from the incubator had a high likelihood of remaining in the county.

“Currently, we’re almost 100 percent either agricultural or wine-related,” he said, including tourism in the wine category. “Almost all of our eggs are in the same basket. A little diversity in our industries would be good.”

Creating an incubator in the Airport Industrial Area was among several considerations included in the January “Airport Industrial Area Blue Ribbon Committee Report.” Mr. Caldwell said that there was strong political support for the incubator effort and noted that other economic development proposals from the report have already received action, like funding for improvements to Devlin Road, which links the area to American Canyon.

Other supporters include the City of Napa, the Workforce Investment Board, the chambers of commerce for Napa and American Canyon and Sustainable Napa County.

“Sustainable Napa County, we really are focused on three key pieces: sustainability, environment, but also – economic vitality, and what’s good for business,” said Jeri Gill, CEO of Sustainable Napa County and member of the group working to develop the incubator.

At 107,000 square feet, the building under consideration became entirely vacant after the departure of the International Air Services Company in February. The company, better known as IASCO, had operated the flight training school for Japan Airlines for nearly 40 years and leased a portion of the building for a more streamlined school after the airline exited amid bankruptcy in 2010.

Mr. Hicks said that the way the building was configured for those education programs was nearly ideal for the incubator concept as well, which would help minimize some costs and ease the transition.

While the development of a comprehensive business plan would help narrow down specific program costs, the incubator report noted that similar programs have required approximately $300,000 to operate in their first three years. The report estimates self-sustaining revenue after three years, with long-term viability due to small equity stakes that companies assign to the incubator in exchange for services.

Other members of the group working on the incubator project include Kent Kuhlmann of Kuhlmann Associates Financial, Jason and Mary Luros of Hudson & Luros, LLP, Michael Holcomb of Strong and Hayden Commercial real estate and Pamela Gleeson, financial consultant and Napa chamber treasurer.