Editor’s note: In the coming weeks and months, Worcester Sun will chronicle the trials, tribulations and triumphs of Sun contributor — and aspiring small business owner — Giselle Rivera-Flores as she explores ways to help her daughter and other Worcester families find affordable educational support and assistance. This is the third in an occasional series in which we plan to illuminate the acute struggles of families with limited resources; and how families and entrepreneurs alike can navigate the political landmines and red tape to start their own business — and make a difference.
As soon as I walked into the commercial space on Pleasant Street with Peter Dunn, I knew the size and location were perfect. The space was private, equipped with its own entrance, approximately 450 square feet and had two separate offices. I immediately started to map out the layout for the students in my mind’s eye: a desk here, computers on this side, a small reading corner over there … and my office here.
It all made sense. The space was a gem, made ideal by its location near the student bus stop on Pleasant Street, and located directly across from an apartment community. This location may be able to serve my mission.
I was excited about the space. Actually, I was more than excited, I was finally starting to feel positive about my startup.
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“How much is the space, Wendy?” I asked, already starting to sense that nervous feeling that I am used to getting when discussing commercial space pricing. I have seen a half-dozen commercial spaces throughout Worcester and they averaged $1,200 a month in rent.
Please don’t say $1,200 a month, Wendy, I thought to myself.
“I am renting the space for $500 a month with utilities,” Wendy said [Editor’s note: Wendy asked that her last name and affiliation not be printed]. “What are your thoughts?”
“My thoughts are that this is exactly what I have been looking for!”
I thanked Dunn, the city’s business programs manager, for helping me find a potential space for my business. Dunn has not only been receptive to my emails, calls and constant questioning over the last few weeks, but he’d just taken a negative experience for me and turned it around by going above and beyond.
Let me rewind to a week ago, when I was running out of ideas and thinking that my tutoring service might never be more than a dream.
The week before meeting with Peter and Wendy on Pleasant Street, Dunn had put me in contact with colleague Edgar Luna, business development manager in the city’s economic development office at City Hall.
“Hi. This message is for Edgar Luna. I am following up per my last message in regards to available commercial spaces in Worcester for approximately $500 a month for a tutoring service I am starting,” I said in leaving my second voicemail in a week to Luna and getting ready to follow up via email, just in case he is not accessible via phone.
Finally, Luna had returned my email, but it wasn’t long before he was shutting down my commercial space search criteria.
“You are looking for a space of approximately 350 to 500 square feet for $500 a month? That is a bit unrealistic. We do not negotiate rents with landlords and our listings come from MLS [Multiple Listing Service] and based on the space size you are looking for, there is not a potential space that would fit your rent needs. I will send you what I have,” Luna said.
How is it possible for the city of Worcester to not have commercial space available for $500 a month? I mean, everywhere I turn, there are empty commercial spaces.
All this empty commercial space in the city and not one is priced at an affordable rate? I started to understand why there was a lack of small businesses opening in Worcester. Maybe rents were just too high.
After I received the list from Luna a week later and after a followup call to his office, I began to peruse the list. These spaces ranged from 1,000 square feet and up. Maybe one or two were listed in the search criteria I’d inquired about, while the rest of the spaces were so big, I thought, that a small school could occupy some of them.
Feeling like I was getting no help from Luna, I started to search on my own.
I tried Craigslist ads dated back over a month ago in hopes of finding a landlord that may have multiple spaces and may be inclined to negotiate rents just to turn a vacancy into an occupied space. I placed some calls and made some appointments.
Luna said my search criteria were impossible, but with my mission to cater the tutoring service to low-income students, I knew I had to keep my overhead costs to a minimum. If I was going to average a rate of $15 an hour per student, I would have to confirm 34 hours of tutoring just to cover the rental costs.
I stuck to my pricing goals and set out to meet with landlords and property managers.
I met with Kwasi, a property manager for the Commerce Building on Main Street. He showed me a space on the third floor of the nine-story office building, and the size was exactly what I was looking for. The price, he said, “is only $450 a month with all utilities included.”
This is a great price and size but what about the students coming into the building?
The Commerce Building has a District Court-related office for public defenders located on the second floor and a heavily armed police officer in the lobby signing in guests before they head to the elevator and their destinations. The setup just did not seem ideal for young students. As a mother, my first priority for these students is safety. I want them to be able to have a direct-access entrance into the tutoring center to alleviate safety concerns of other parents.
“Thank you for your time but I will have to pass,” I said to Kwasi. He explained to me that he had several different office spaces and sizes [Editor’s note: He’s not kidding! (Click here.)] and if I ever needed a space, not to hesitate to call.
I met another entrepreneur on Shrewsbury Street who was looking to share his space for only $360 a month. The access to the space, again, was an issue for me. It was on the third floor and required a lengthy walk upstairs for students. “Thank you for your time but I will have to pass,” I said, again.
I must have said I had to pass at least a half-dozen times. Although the spaces were within my price range, they were not easily accessible nor were they in a great location for students.
The search was starting to weigh me down and chip away at my optimistic outlook.
During my search, I was spending lots of time writing my business plan. Every night, I tackled a new section of the plan. I am not sure if you have ever written a business plan but it can be daunting. A 30-page document filled with financial forecasts for my business over the next five years. I could barely secure a commercial space, let alone describe financial stability in 2020.
I looked at my playbook, the one Dunn had given me earlier in the week, and made an appointment to meet with an adviser at the Small Business Development Center at Clark University for some business plan advice.
In the meantime, I still had to cater to my commercial space search.
As a student at Worcester State University, I started to look within the school for potential help with my business.
Researching the WSU website, I came across the P-12 Initiatives page describing the university’s new program on campus making a connection with higher education and grades K-12. This seemed like the perfect place to pitch my business concept.
The Worcester State University location is great for launching a tutoring service as it is located between three schools: Chandler Magnet Elementary, May Street School, and Tatnuck School.
I meet with Associate Dean of Education Raynold Lewis, director of the P-12 Initiatives at WSU, and he was thrilled about my tutoring service concept, particularly because it catered to low-income students.
“I think that this concept is exactly what P-12 is looking for. A way to give back to the students in the elementary school age and show them the opportunity of higher education,” he said. “I will present this to the committee and contact you on Friday.”
Lewis called and explained that the committee thought the concept was great but that they could not help me due to the fact that I would charge families $15 an hour. They also could not host a space, even if I paid rent for it, because the program had to be managed by a certified teacher.
Dr. Lewis encouraged me not to give up because it is a service not currently being provided, and he believes in supportive educational services. “Thank you, Dr. Lewis. I appreciate your help,” I said, hanging up under an overwhelming cloud of disappointment.
Back at square one and waiting for my appointment to discuss my business plan, I decided to email Dunn. “Peter are there other commercial spaces in Worcester other than those provided by Luna?” I wrote.
To my surprise, Dunn responded, “Actually, I may have a space on Pleasant St. Would you like to meet me Friday morning at the space? I think it will be perfect for your business.”
Fast forward to the present.
After viewing the space and coming away all but sold, Wendy said she would send over the lease for my review and potentially get the process under way.
Finally, a light at the end of the tunnel.
Now all I had to do was dig up $1,000 for first and last months’ rent. I raced to my laptop to start a GoFundMe page for rent, furniture and supplies.
For more information on Giselle’s project or to help support her mission, check out her campaign. And come back to Worcester Sun’s Oct. 25-31 edition for chapter 4 of A Mother’s Journey.