Serial entrepreneurs grow green businesses, value place
By Leslie Fitzwater
OAK HILL, W.Va. -- George Rogers and Brandon Holmes say that a beautiful landscape is the best incubator for business. So for them, the ideal site to locate their three businesses is the historic town of Oak Hill in Fayette County. For these two “serial entrepreneurs,” the New River Gorge area provides the perfect base for their business pursuits and their active outdoor lifestyles.
As owners and partners of two Web-based businesses and a real estate company, the pair could work anywhere. Their marketing company, WELD, does just what the name implies; it fuses, bonds and connects a variety of content across the Web that allows the clients’ marketing efforts to all move forward at one time. WELD does everything from writing copy to capturing video, while at the same time monitoring and using new trends like video search engines to ensure their clients’ needs are well served.
A second company, ELITE Swiftwater Institute, offers Web-based distance learning for first responders of flood, swift water and rope rescue emergencies. ELITE provides courses that range from swift water rescue to river-based and wilderness first aid, and is partnering with the New River Community and Technical College to introduce the Web-based distance learning courses to a wider audience. In addition to online courses, ELITE offers field instruction and scenario simulations to give students a well-rounded training experience.
The Bellann Building on Main Street in Oak Hill is headquarters not only for ELITE and WELD, but also for the pair’s third company, Lights ON! West Virginia, a real estate business that buys old buildings and renovates them into environmentally friendly office spaces. In July 2007, Rogers and Holmes began gutting the 10,000-square-foot Bellann building, which had sat vacant for 16 years. Within a year, the first phase of the renovation was complete, housing five other businesses besides the three owned by Holmes and Rogers. Each office has a window, which cuts down on the need for artificial, electrical lighting, and all the businesses share a 400-square-foot conference room, kitchen and shower.
When possible, Lights ON! West Virginia used local craftsmen and materials in the building’s renovation. “One of our goals for Lights ON! West Virginia is to maintain a balance between economic development and responsible economic development,” Rogers said. “We wanted to renovate the Bellann in a conscientious and earth-friendly way by using materials that were already in the building or available locally.”
The concrete countertops for the conference room were poured by one of the Bellann’s tenants. The building’s ceiling tiles are comprised of 80 percent recycled materials, and nearly 95 percent of the original hardwood floors were able to be recovered. In some offices, carpeting made of recycled soda pop bottles was installed. A new roof, which is white and reflects heat, is now in place, helping to reduce the amount of electricity needed to cool the building.
All of the materials used in the Bellann’s renovation are LEED® compliant. LEED® is the acronym for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System™, a program that supports “green” or environmentally friendly building practices and products. Rogers and Holmes expect to complete phases two and three of the Bellann’s renovation within the next two years and become LEED® certified.
These next two phases include renovating the building’s exterior and installing a “green wall” with plants and a solar-powered water pump that will not only water the plants, but also provide a water source for their concrete-laying tenant. Tenants will sign “green leases” that stipulate criteria each one must comply with, including outfitting their offices with ENERGY STAR® office equipment. When the process is complete and the Bellann is LEED® certified, it will be the first privately-owned, pre-existing building in West Virginia to have that designation.
“Our goal is to make money in real estate in a responsible way,” Holmes said. “Renovating this old building and utilizing the materials already there allows us to create more by using less.”
Proximity to the New River Gorge area is one reason Holmes and Rogers decided to locate their operations in Oak Hill. Both men are avid outdoorsmen who enjoy the limitless activities the New River Gorge provides. They like the fact that when their work days are over they don’t have far to commute for world-class climbing, paddling, biking, hiking and whitewater rafting.
Holmes believes that a sense of place and quality of life are drawing members of the “creative class” to scenic locations like West Virginia’s New River Gorge. Of WELD’s 10 employees, only Rogers is a native West Virginian. Holmes is originally from Maryland, and the duo has recruited employees from across the nation to come to West Virginia.
“The creative class can work anywhere and still be connected to the world by the Web,” Holmes said. “When you can work anywhere, then you can live anywhere, and there’s no better place to live and work than the New River Gorge area. A little bit of money goes a long way in West Virginia, and when you add that to the state’s great people, non-existent traffic congestion, great weather and fantastic views, you’ve got a winning combination.”
Surprisingly, when the business partners are asked what they consider the state’s best kept secret, they don’t mention the great landscape or outdoor recreation. Instead, Holmes and Rogers resoundingly agree that West Virginia’s best kept secret is the entrepreneurial opportunity.
“West Virginia is a clean slate and anything is possible,” Rogers said. “People are open to new ideas and readily embrace new entrepreneurial endeavors.”
Rogers adds that some of the national development trends that excluded West Virginia in the past are now propelling the state forward.
“Small towns, good transportation and solid infrastructure make West Virginia a smart business location,” Rogers said. “Decision makers are easily accessible and supportive of new businesses and new ideas.”
Holmes says that the pair’s entrepreneurial efforts were successful in West Virginia because of the support of banks like BB&T, local economic development groups such as 4-C Economic Development Authority, and Community Development Financial Institution Funds such as the Natural Capital Investment Fund.
“BB&T, 4-C EDA and NCIFWV helped us refine our business skills, develop a business plan and pull together creative funding for our financing packages,” Holmes said. “The people who work for these agencies have a high level of integrity and a genuine interest in seeing increased economic development in West Virginia.”
Rogers sees their entrepreneurial efforts as an example for others who may be thinking about investing in West Virginia. “Here’s our model. Take it and run with it,” Holmes said. “Take responsibility for the state. Find new ways to push the envelope.”