High-tech creativity flourishes in Hagerstown
Ten years ago, Jeff Huffine and Jeff Richards each ran a small business with one employee – themselves.
They did similar work in neighboring offices. Maybe, they thought, they should look for a space together where they might be able to expand.
Both men grew up in East Central Indiana. They had established their companies in Hagerstown and had roots there. But though they were determined to stay in the region, it was by no means certain they would remain in Hagerstown.
Then they heard about the town’s EDIT loan program.
EDIT stands for the Economic Development Income Tax. Cities and towns in Wayne County receive one-fourth of a penny for every dollar of payroll through local income tax collected. Hagerstown contributes half of what it receives to the county’s Consolidated EDIT fund for county-wide economic development efforts. The remaining half is spent at the town’s discretion.
About the same time that Huffine and Richards started looking for a building, the Hagerstown Town Council developed a low-interest loan program using its portion of EDIT dollars.
Also at the same time, a historic building on Hagerstown’s Main Street was up for sale – a building with a wrought iron fence and a distinctive front gate.
Richards and Huffine created IronGate LLC and took a business plan before the town council, which awarded them a $30,000 ten-year loan at 1.5 percent interest.
The loan was repaid this summer.
But this isn’t a story about breaking even.
IronGate Creative – Richards and Huffine combined their businesses in 2010 under the name – now has five full-time employees in addition to its founders. Their average age is 29.
A building saved from the wrecking ball is filled to near capacity. Young people who might otherwise have left the region are instead staying to do work they love. IronGate has become a Hagerstown fixture.
“I don’t know how you could be more direct in funding economic development,” said Peggy Cenova, regional director of the East Central Indiana Small Business Development Center. A Hagerstown resident, Cenova was serving on the town council when IronGate received its loan. She’s proud of what was accomplished with that money.
“I think it has to be more than we had anticipated,” she said.
Even so, a bit of a mystery surrounds IronGate Creative.
“People in this community have no idea what we do,” said Richards with a smile.
“Our own families don’t know what we do,” added Huffine, laughing.
That’s understandable. They – and their employees – do a lot of things: website development, videography, branding, graphic design, digital advertising, packaging, display, market research, and more. “We cover it all,” Huffine said.
“We always say creativity is at the center of all of it,” said Richards.
Because most of the work they do is technology-based, there have been a lot of adaptations over the past ten years – and the founders expect that to continue.
“How we’re going to get our message out ten years from now we don’t know,” Richards said, “but at the core … is creative ideas.”
That creativity makes the work very appealing.
Hagerstown High School graduate Kelsie Arnold just completed her second summer as an IronGate intern and is entering a master’s degree program at Ball State.
“In high school, I was determined I wanted to get away and move out of Indiana,” she said, “but now I guess I know where I could get a job!”
Derek Hollenberg moved to Hagerstown when his wife got a job there. He studied video and television production at Indiana University, but never expected to find local work in the field. His arrival in town coincided with IronGate client needs. Hollenberg started doing freelance work for the company, then became a full-time employee two years ago.
He’s thrilled to be able to follow his passion.
In fact, everyone in the business is engaged in creative endeavor. IronGate doesn’t have a sales department. Clients come to them.
“Business is good,” Richards said.
“I’m very proud of the business,” said Huffine. “I’m proud of the product here. I’m proud of the people we have.”
And they are proud of paying back the town’s EDIT loan.
Huffine and Richards gave a presentation to the town council earlier this summer, outlining what has happened to IronGate since receiving the $30,000. They hope Hagerstown will continue the loan program.
Town Manager Chris LaMar said there haven’t been any applications in the past couple of years, but the loans still are available. In addition to IronGate’s, there have been five or six other loans given.
“As long as it’s improving a property and creating jobs for the community, it’s a win-win situation,” LaMar said.
Huffine agreed. “This is a very clever way,” he said, “for small communities to really use their EDIT funds to try to build local business.”
“Just like you invest in yourself as an individual, as a community, I think it’s important to invest in yourself,” said Richards.
“Let’s help (companies) flourish here.”