Purdue University's department of chemical engineering is investing in the Pantheon Business Theater.
Sangtae Kim, the head of the department, announced Tuesday afternoon at Vincennes University's Van Eaton ICAT building the interest from a $2 million endowment left to the university years ago would be invested into the shared workspace and small business incubator set to be housed in the historic Pantheon Theatre downtown at 428 Main St.
That money — about $90,000 per year — would be invested in the incubator's entrepreneurs in residence, i.e. professionals who can help to guide young entrepreneurs using the space to grow and nourish their own business ideas.
“Purdue's resources can pay for the lion's share, if not a majority or all of having those entrepreneurs who are available to people as they work at the incubator,” Kim said.
The idea is that there would be not just one entrepreneur in residence but many, explained Steve Miller, founder of INVin, the non-profit who currently owns the theater.
Whenever a local entrepreneur needs guidance in a particular speciality or field, he or she would then reach out to Purdue which, in turn, would draw from its resources to offer individualized help.
In terms of day-to-day operations — someone to open the theater, close it at night and set up for special events, etc. — the Pantheon Board, a 5-member group set up to oversee the pending renovation, would hire a full-time manager.
That role, Miller explained, would be separate from the entrepreneurs in residence who would be called upon as needed.
Some of those entrepreneurs, Kim said, are likely to volunteer their time. Others, however, will likely charge a substantial rate, a rate which money from the Purdue endowment would be used to pay.
This gift, Kim offered, “connects dots unimaginable a few years ago.”
“It's not just the commitment of money but a commitment of connections,” he said, “and networking, a network that will now include Knox County and the Pantheon.
“I see a lot of exciting possibilities, especially for young people.”
Kim said he envisions his own students interacting often with those using the incubator.
Students will have the “opportunity to come and interact with entrepreneurs, learn about innovation and collaborate with new business ventures and ideas,” he said.
Ultimately, though, Kim said the reason he decided to dedicate the income from this particular endowment was due to the vision of its donor.
Bob Henson, Kim said, graduated from Purdue University in 1936 at the “heart of the depression.” He built his own company “from scratch,” Kim said, and eventually sold it in excess of $1 billion.
It was a labor of love for “entrepreneurship and innovation,” Kim said, and dedicating the income from the endowment to a small business incubator “honors that spirit.”
“Ninety-nine out of 100 heads of schools wouldn't have done what I did,” Kim said, “but I think it's important to honor the legacy of the donor.
“The community deserves a lot of credit for making this investment and we are proud that Purdue can play a role in helping to create this vision,” he said.
The cost of renovating the Pantheon Theatre into a small business incubator is expected to be $2.4 million, but county and city elected officials have agreed to split the cost.
When complete, the space will be a largely open-concept office with private offices for rent around its perimeter, a coffee shop, a lab and public meeting areas, among other amenities.
This most recent announcement creates a deeper relationship between the Pantheon Business Theater and Purdue University. Already, officials there had said it could function as a direct artery to the Purdue Foundry, university's own entrepreneurial center, one through which its programs and resources could flow.
The project has, however, been a source of contention throughout the community for months. It's an issue, too, that has fueled ongoing election rhetoric.
Stacey Allen, a Democrat seeking to unseat incumbent Republican Kellie Streeter, who supports the project, in the District 3 county commission race, has argued that tax dollars being allocated to the Pantheon Business Theater is an example of how county government is being run by "special interests on Main Street."
Democrat Ray McCormick, who is running for the open District 3 seat on the county council, is another critic, calling it a "risky real estate investment.”
McCormick's opponent, Republican Jay Yochum, supports to project, which has been championed by his brother, Vincennes Mayor Joe Yochum, as well.