More than a dozen local businesses have been left reeling after NORTEC abruptly terminated the leases of all the small businesses located at the three small-business incubator sites located in Byron Bay, Mullumbimby and Goonellabah with only six weeks to move. NORTEC has stated that ‘The Byron Bay and Goonellabah sites will be sold’. The Mullumbimby site is not owned by NORTEC.
‘They handed me the eviction notice in a folder that had “creating opportunities and inspiring futures” on the front,’ said Goonellabah business owner Mary-Anne Meginess.
‘I don’t feel supported or inspired. This is not nurturing – it’s disgusting.’
The small businesses on the sites were supposed to be provided with reduced rent and regular business support yet none of the businesses feel they have received any business support.
‘NORTEC were supposed to supply business support as part of the incubator program,’ continued Mary-Anne,
‘After two years at the incubator I started paying for some of the business events that NOTEC put on and I finally got a mentor a month ago.’
Mary-Anne was feeling inspired and excited about growing her business and had felt that with the mentor there was a real chance for this.
‘I’m now just really angry and exhausted.’
Start-up businesses at the Byron Bay site are also devastated by the eviction with several businesses having just opened their doors in the last month.
‘I’ve just finished setting up a couple of weeks ago,’ said Jake May of his graphic design business that he has invested $5–8,000 in.
‘I feel absolutely robbed. They promised me I could have it (the space) for three years and there was no indication that it wouldn’t be available for three years.’
The process to rent the incubator site involved interviews with NORTEC and ‘they expected me to be committed to the business and the incubator,’ explained Jake.
‘They suggested that I talk to my boss to leave my job and have a full-time commitment to this business – so that’s what I did.
‘I worked here nights and weekends for three months to get set up and I have a seven-month-old – I don’t get back that time missed with my family.’
Similar experiences were had by other small businesses who had taken the chance to get started at the incubator sites.
‘I’m screwed,’ said Jarrah Hustler, who set up her hair salon business at the Byron site a year ago.
‘I can’t get a new space arranged, a DA approved and fitted in six weeks.
‘It took me four months to get into this space a year ago and have it extensively fitted out. I said to them I have $20,000 to put into this business – am I guaranteed it for three years? They said “Yes, you can have it for three years unless you break your lease”. I thought as it is a government-funded business that it wasn’t going to screw me over. I would have been better off not going through the NEIS scheme.’
And it is not only the small businesses who have only six weeks to vacate over the Christmas period that are angry at the decision to sell the Byron and Goonellabah sites.
Business Incubator & Innovation Australia board member Amanda Kenyon and Garry Bargh, who originally helped develop the small-business incubator sites, are outraged that NORTEC are selling these ‘community assets’.
‘The essence of it is that these are community-owned assets,’ said Ms Kenyon.
‘An awful lot of hard work from the community went into building these. They represent 20 years of hard community work and millions of dollars.’
The Ballina site, which NORTEC discreetly sold last year, and the Byron Bay site, were handed to NORTEC when they merged BETC (Ballina skills and development centre) and Tweed-based TTEC in 2007.
BETC had managed to save the money to buy the small-incubator sites and with state and federal funding were able to build the purpose-built facilities to help support new and innovative business ideas in the local community.
‘All these incubators were funded by a combination of community assets and cash from the state and federal governments,’ said Mr Bargh, who was the BTEC manager at the time the sites were being developed.
‘The majority of the funding came from the federal government. After completion of a contract period the assets were owned by the community organisation (BTEC).
‘When the merger took place in 2007 the understanding was that these community assets would remain in the community in trust and managed by NORTEC.’
NORTEC legally within rights
Legally NORTEC are within their rights to give only one week’s notice to the businesses at the sites, and business operators were only ever given verbal confirmation of the three-year tenure.
‘Four months ago I told Peter (Byron incubator site manager) that I’m going overseas for a year in January and I said I needed to have stability,’ said Michael Brechbuhler from Eco Minerals.
‘He said, “I can give you my word it will be available for the next year but I can’t give it to you in writing”. They never provided any support; Jarrah is just getting her feet on the ground and these guys are supposed to support them and they are going to destroy them. It’s just wrong.’
On the NORTEC website the new CEO Kim Harrison has posted a message stating that ‘We’ll be working closely with affected licensees during the transitionary period’.
However, the tenants have only been provided with an email address that doesn’t elicit a response and a set of dates on which NORTEC will help lift boxes to clear the site.
‘I’ve emailed the email address twice and they haven’t responded,’ said Mary-Anne.
‘They are unwilling to communicate,’ explained Jarrah.
‘They won’t have a group meeting with us, only one on one. The timing is terrible it is everyone’s busiest time of year.’
Hand them back
Both Kenyon and Bargh believe that the sites should be handed back to an organisation that has the expertise to continue to provide business incubation support and development.
‘They admitted that they don’t have the expertise to provide the support and the last couple of years they have done nothing,’ said Kenyon.
‘I’ve offered to help both the current and previous coordinators to run these places properly – free of charge – and they refused. Now we find they are flogging them off. It really doesn’t seem right. They are doing it by stealth – at the eleventh hour they are handing notice to the tenants. It’s robbery of the community.’
Alison Pearl, president of the Byron Region Community College and CLIC who lease the site in Mullumbimby to NORTEC, said that ‘We received the surprise news that NORTEC will cease managing all their local incubation centres on Tuesday (December 5), minutes before the “licensees” were informed. After the initial surprise, we urged them to extend the period to vacate (the Mullumbimby site) to February 2 so as not to have so heavy an impact on the holiday period.
‘Once the site is cleared, CLIC will be able to re-create the site as a truly innovative, sustainable small-business village that will wholeheartedly benefit the local community, and beyond. We regret the disruption to those currently on the site.’