Since opening in August of 2016, Stoke, Denton’s entrepreneur center and co-working space, has provided space for local businesses, entrepreneurs, freelance workers, and remote workers. The center has also hosted a variety of educational, professional networking, and social events. There has been formal and informal mentoring for new entrepreneurs and collaboration between several of the businesses located at Stoke. All of these things have provided great benefit to Denton’s tech and business communities, allowing them to contribute more to the Denton community and economy.
However, Stoke currently finds itself in transition. The center was originally conceived as a partnership between the City of Denton and the Dallas Entrepreneur Center (DEC). However, the City Council expressed concerns about costs and voted on August 22nd to end the contract with the DEC and take over management of the center effective October 1st. This resulted in the departure of the site’s director, Heather Gregory. Since her father is City Councilman Dalton Gregory, nepotism laws prohibit her from working for the city. A transition team of city employees was appointed to manage the center temporarily while the next step is determined. The transition team has made it clear that there is no intention for them to manage the center on a long-term basis.
The city issued a request for proposals on September 12th. Only one response was received, and it was brought up for discussion at a City Council work session on October 24th. Councilman Gregory recused himself from the discussion because of his daughter’s ties to the center.
The proposal came from Marshall Culpepper, CEO of Kubos, a Denton-based startup that makes software for satellites. Culpepper has formed a company called Hickory & Rail Ventures (HRV) for the purpose of managing Stoke. A summary of the proposal was presented to the City Council by the city’s Director of Economic Development, Caroline Booth (details are from the minutes of the 10/24 meeting).
One concern that many had about the DEC’s management of Stoke was that as a Dallas-based entity, the DEC was not invested in the success of Denton’s businesses and workers. The proposal touts Culpepper’s deep roots in Denton as a UNT alum and the founder of a successful startup that has remained in Denton in a time when many startups with any success relocate to Silicon Valley to pursue greater funding. The proposal also contains a plan to reduce the city’s expenses by tens of thousands of dollars annually. The philosophy behind the HRV proposal is, “The management company behind Stoke should lead by example. A business teaching others how to start and grow businesses should itself be a growing, sustainable business.”
Culpepper’s vision for the future of Stoke involves partnerships with four key Denton organizations:
- University of North Texas – offering classes and certificates in entrepreneurship and digital design at Stoke
- TechMill – increased programming to educate, grow, and support Denton’s tech community
- Brand Accelerant – offering funding and advice to local entrepreneurs
- Denton Angels – an angel investor network focused on Denton startups in their early stages, as well as a monthly event where entrepreneurs meet with potential investors
Booth recommended that the City Council accept the HRV proposal. The council expressed enthusiasm for the proposal in general but wanted some changes to the proposed contract between the city and HRV. The council then asked Culpepper about his proposal and his vision for managing Stoke. The mayor and each council member expressed verbal support for the proposal, as long as the contract is amended to provide further clarification on what sorts of business are desired as Stoke tenants.
The vote on the modified contract is expected to take place November 7th or 14th. If the proposal is accepted, the goal is for HRV to assume management of Stoke effective December 1st.
If you would like to express your ideas on the HRV proposal, you can contact Mayor Watts and the City Council using the information below.
Mayor Chris Watts
Gerard Hudspeth, District 1
Keely G. Briggs, District 2
Don Duff, District 3
John Ryan, District 4
Dalton Gregory, At Large Place 5
Sara Bagheri, At Large Place 6