BY Steve Mocarsky, Wilkes-Barre Citizens Voice
WILKES-BARRE — A local entrepreneur has been awarded a $1 million state grant to help him buy and renovate two downtown buildings in the GUARD complex.
Adjacent structures at 16 and 24 S. River St. will serve as the new headquarters for companies owned by entrepreneur and author Kris Jones, including KBJ Capital and Special Guest App, an entertainment booking service.
The project also will house the region’s first startup accelerator program, which will give local startups and entrepreneurs the opportunity to work directly with Jones to take their company or concept from incubation to a fully launched, funded and revenue-generating business.
“I’m pleased to provide funding to both develop vacant properties and bolster a startup in the Wilkes-Barre region,” Gov. Tom Wolf said in a news release.
“My administration sees the long-term benefits of supporting projects that provide for expansion, economic development and jobs, and that align with the goals of the many business leaders and entrepreneurs in NEPA,” Wolf said.
Jones, who is probably best known for founding Pepperjam as a gourmet food business with his brother Rick in 1999 and transforming it into a successful digital marketing company in downtown Wilkes-Barre before selling it 10 years later, formed KBJ Capital in 2010 so he could invest in other startups.
Jones said he would probably move at least six of his seven multi-million dollar companies to the GUARD buildings, and he expects numerous technology-based or technology-enabled companies vying to locate there as well to participate in the accelerator program, which is designed to double or triple their growth.
Jones said the project is “not a done deal, but thanks to the support of Gov. Wolf, Sen. (John) Yudichak and Rep. (Eddie Day) Pashinski, it’s a significant hurdle that we’ve crossed and are in a good position to negotiate the deal and get it done.”
The Greater Wilkes-Barre Chamber of Business and Industry, through its Industrial Fund, applied for the grant on Jones’ behalf.
Joe Boylan, an economic development consultant with the chamber, said an accelerator program is sorely needed in the region, and running it is “a natural fit” for Jones, who was born and raised in the area.
Boylan said Greater Wilkes-Barre already has a business incubator program in place for start-ups, and the accelerator program will help them structure correctly for growth and find financing.
“It’s also about connecting them to companies locally that can help fuel that growth even more,” he said.
Boylan said Berkshire Hathaway GUARD has moved about 30 percent of its offices from four buildings to Wilkes-Barre Center on Public Square, which the insurance company bought last October to house its national headquarters. He expects the move to be complete by the end of the year.
Boylan said the state Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program grant requires a 50 percent local match, which will be met through the acquisition of the buildings alone. Together, they’re assessed at about $2 million.