CO:LAB, an entrepreneurial development center created by a partnership between FloridaWest Economic Development Alliance and Pensacola State College, is roaring back to life after being put on pause by the COVID-19 pandemic and Hurricane Sally.
In January of 2020, before the pandemic hit, CO:LAB was buzzing at 86 percent occupancy with 19 companies representing 59 employees. Countywide restrictions began impacting CO:LAB businesses and a few decided to pause and even leave. But that summer, many of the tenants began to return to the Pensacola business incubator.
“As people and businesses were learning how to navigate the pandemic, they began to return to CO:LAB,” said Casey Campbell, CO:LAB Office Manager. “We were very optimistic — then the hurricane struck.”
Hurricane Sally impacted Northwest Florida in September 2020, lashing the region with category 2 winds. Those winds lifted off half of the roof from CO:LAB’s Garden Street building in downtown Pensacola. Driving rain from the monster storm caused water intrusion into most of the building.
“The third and fourth floors had to be gutted to the studs,” said Campbell. “The entire building had to be dried out and renovated — but PSC stepped in without hesitation to begin the rebuild. Needless to say, our tenants who just returned no longer had a home. Still technically a part of CO:LAB, several companies relocated permanently and others did not come back. It was like starting all over again.”
Today, CO:LAB is well on its way to returning to previous occupancy levels. Director of Entrepreneurial Development Patrick Rooney said it’s rewarding rebuilding the business-boosting enterprise.
“We’re now at 62 percent occupancy with 19 tenants that represent 49 employees,” said Rooney. “CO:LAB is back to being a hub of entrepreneurial activity — it’s exciting to watch this important business incubator regain its foothold in our community. And it’s very satisfying to see our graduates successfully move on and make room for new tenants.”
CO:LAB offers startups who apply and are accepted a three- to five-year program that includes office space and equipment, business mentoring, and the camaraderie of other entrepreneurs who share many of the same challenges.
One of those new tenants, Video Brochures Direct, is owned and operated by Aaron Ball and Glenn McDuffy. McDuffy said they were looking for office space downtown when they discovered CO:LAB. As a startup with specific needs, they fit the model perfectly.
“We got a tour of the facility and I knew right away it was a perfect fit,” said McDuffy. “We needed a showroom and office space and we got that and so much more. It’s the perfect environment for networking and sharing best practices with other entrepreneurs. I feel like we’re just thriving here — Pensacola offers so much — quality of life, talent pool, the university and colleges — it’s the perfect place for our headquarters.”
Another new tenant, Kevin Wessa, founder of BREWWW web design studio that focuses on creative solutions for complex problems, joined CO:LAB in April 2022. He and his wife, co-founder Christine, were looking for a place to grow their business.
“I was exploring downtown for an office and discovered CO:LAB,” said Wessa. “The aspect of the entrepreneurial community is what makes it so special — our businesses are all different but we share a similar excitement for the work we do and can understand the challenges of running a business as well. Having other entrepreneurs around to bounce ideas off of has been a game changer.”
Dr. Ed Meadows, President of Pensacola State College, said that CO:LAB is an important incubator for entrepreneurs.
“We continue to be excited about offering this facility for the entrepreneurial community since 2008,” said Dr. Meadows. “These entrepreneurs need not only space, but also the support and training offered by FloridaWest.”