Innovation at heart of Wilson business incubator and its new leader

Thank you for being one of our most loyal readers. Please consider supporting community journalism by subscribing.


Wilson’s plans to transform a vacant two-story building at 127 Goldsboro St. into an innovative incubator are making headway this month as construction begins, the manager of the effort gets acclimated to the city and residents gather to learn more about it during a March 26 meetup.

“Wilson has embraced the digital age. They didn’t want to get left behind, and initiatives like Greenlight and the Gig East Exchange speaks to that mindset,” said manager Darren Smith. “The Exchange is a place to receive education and improve skill sets for this digital economy. It is the next step in the innovation economy that Wilson has established by providing an inclusive space for entrepreneurs, remote workers and small companies.”

The initiative was launched last April as the innovation hub and was planned for 121 Nash St. W. As the effort evolved, the site was switched to Goldsboro Street and rebranded as the Gig East Hub before organizers substituted “hub” with “exchange.”

“One reason I like using the word ‘exchange’ is because that is truly what I see this space becoming,” Smith said. “It will be a place to exchange ideas and a place to exchange experiences. I see this as a place of endless opportunities for the community of Wilson.”

The Marion native joined the city staff in mid-February, and his first priority has been to get the word out to any and everyone about the Exchange. After four years in the U.S. Air Force, Smith moved to the Triangle and started with a technology company.

“I knew very little but had a great experience learning about hardware and software and all that. That is where my career in a business development role really developed. It is somewhat sales but more about business development, partnerships and becoming my customers’ trusted adviser,” he recalled. “When I heard about the opportunity with the city of Wilson, I got very excited because I felt I could leverage all these years building a professional network and be a part of growing a town that is very invested in innovation.”

He’s still working on finding a place in Wilson, but the father of three said he loves the city.

“After I talked to the team, I did some digging into what Wilson was about, what the history was. I drove down and immediately felt like I was back home in Marion,” he said. “Marion is a whole lot smaller, but it had the same feel. I grew up on a farm and it is a rural town, but like many towns of that size, when the textiles and furniture left, they didn’t have a Greenlight. They didn’t have the leadership like Wilson has that constantly says, ‘What is coming and how can we be ready for it?’”

The roof of the Goldsboro property recently was replaced, and less than a year of construction inside the building is set to get underway this month. Meanwhile, Smith is working hard to get the word out, and he hopes the March 26 meetup will build the excitement for it. Doors open for the free event at 5:30 p.m. at 217 Brew Works where attendees can meet Smith, learn more about the Exchange and provide input programs planned for it.

“You can have a state-of-the-art, beautiful facility that delivers the wow factor, but if there is no community inside and around it, it just won’t work,” Smith said. “One survey said 90 percent of people who use these spaces do so because they don’t like to be isolated, so even if you go and work alongside people in completely different industries, you want to be in a space with other professionals and the amenities are a big part of that.”

Officials said the Exchange is part of a variety of efforts to make downtown a bustling epicenter of business and activities as it was in the past, but with an emphasis on art and innovation.

“I’m working on getting more meetups scheduled that will help grow the interest in the community. The Exchange is all about building partnerships and building the momentum,” he said. “When it opens, I want as many people in there as possible and making sure the Exchange is a vital part of the innovative economy and community being built here with programs, educational opportunities and opportunities for others to use the space for meetings as well.”

To learn more, search for “Gig East” on www.wilsonnc.org for information on upcoming events.