GREENSBORO, N.C. (WGHP) — Sam Funchess knows his local history. Just ask him about three of North Carolina’s landmark buildings:

  • The Dean Dome
  • The old R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company headquarters (the one used as a model for what would become the Empire State Building)
  • The Greensboro Coliseum

He’ll tell you they have something in common.

“Carolina Steel was an amazing company,” he told me.

The steel beams and plates that support and make up the skeletons of all three of those structures were “fabricated” (a fancy term for transforming raw steel into a product that can be used in construction or assembly) in Greensboro at the Carolina Steel Corporation.

It was a company built locally from the ground up early in the last century in a complex of large warehouse-looking buildings off Elm-Eugene Street.

And if Funchess has his way over the next few years, a large part of that old complex will continue that “building business from the ground up” theme in a way unprecedented in North Carolina.

Funchess is the CEO of the Nussbaum Center for Entrepreneurship, a private non-profit organization that—in simplest terms—helps small local businesses get off the ground and stay in business.

“My definition of entrepreneurship is somebody who puts personal assets at risk in a business,” he told me recently before giving me a tour of the place. “Because a lot of people don’t realize it’s usually all or nothing when you start a small business.”

And then there’s the troubling fact that 80% of businesses fail within five years.

It’s a statistic Greensboro knows all too well.

98% of businesses in Guilford County are small businesses. And in 1987, when the Nussbaum Center was founded, local businesses were failing at an alarming rate. In fact, that’s why it was created.

Named after entrepreneur (he founded Southern Foods in Greensboro in 1954.), business executive and former Greensboro Mayor Vic Nussbaum, the Nussbaum Center is a business incubator that sits in what used to be Carolina Steel’s executive offices next door to the big steel fabrication buildings. It all was donated to the Nussbaum Center a few years back.

In simplest terms, it helps startup companies and entrepreneurs develop their businesses by providing many services to help them survive.

Today in the Nussbaum Center, 72 companies that employ collectively nearly 200 people pay rent to receive things like offices, manufacturing areas and meeting rooms.

They also get non-tangible things like advice on human resources, payroll and finances not only from center staff members but also from organizations like the Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE) and the North Carolina A&T State University Small Business and Technology Development Center. Both and several other organizations like them have offices on site.

Since its inception, the Nussbaum Center has “graduated” 600 businesses and turned that 80% failure rate I mentioned earlier totally around. Today, 80% of Nussbaum graduates have survived after five years.

“The first year (after starting a business), you’re going to lose every dollar you have,” Funchess said. “In year two, you figure out how to make your money or you go out of business. And then in year three, you generally make up all the money you lost in year one. So if you can make it to years four and five, you’re doing pretty good.”

Funchess feels businesses that survive those first five years, continue to grow and establish roots in Greensboro are the companies that are most effective in terms of creating jobs and wealth.

Greensboro used to be the home of several Fortune 500 Companies that started just that way and kept their headquarters here. Think Burlington Industries, Cone Mills or Guilford Mills.

Funchess says when those companies closed (for whatever reasons), Greensboro entered what he calls a jobs and wealth “crisis” from which it hasn’t fully recovered to this day.

“Your wealth-creating in a community comes from your headquarters,” he told me.

And while he’s not a critic of spending big money to recruit big companies (think Toyota and Boom Supersonic: companies that will probably never move their headquarters here), his strategy is different.

“My day job is focused on growing our own,” he said.

And the Nussbaum Center’s about to ramp that up big time.

It’s announced plans to spend $36 million to convert 220,000 square feet of the old Carolina Steel fabrication space into a multi-use space. It will be called (with a nod to the building’s history) “The Steelhouse.”

It will be built in three phases over the next several years.

“The first phase is a 75,000 square-foot manufacturing space,” he told me. “Phase Two will be more of a community space, a farmer’s market, an artisan space and about 40,000 square feet of office space.”

“Then the third phase is going to be a food production space.” Think ghost kitchens, restaurants and maybe even a brewery.

“When the Steelhouse is fully up and running, we anticipate over 600 jobs being created next door. And if our historical average wage of over $60,000 is replicated next door, the impact is going to be something the east side of Greensboro hasn’t seen in decades.”

I told you he knows his history.

For more information on the Nussbaum Center for Entrepreneurship, click here,. And be sure to click on “The Steelhouse” icon at the top of the page!