Marketing alumna’s business venture is paving the way for fellow entrepreneurs
Fueled by boundless energy, innovative ideas, and a collaborative spirit, Catie Rabun ’08 has, in less than a year, helped set her hometown of Aiken, South Carolina on an economic growth trajectory that is transforming the city’s downtown from under-utilized to vibrant. Meandering through downtown Aiken, Rabun can feel the buzz of excitement — new businesses taking shape, restaurants prospering and a fresh crop of city dwellers attracted to the merits of urban living. At the center of this boom is The Mill on Park. Owned by Caradasa, LLC, a real estate development company Rabun and her father David Sacks established in early 2013, The Mill on Park is Aiken’s very first mixed-use office space specifically planned to give local startup companies a comfortable and affordable “launching pad.”
What prompted Rabun to create a center for emerging businesses was a passion for the entrepreneurial spirit. It is a passion that she discovered while earning an undergraduate degree in marketing from Clemson University. This major afforded her a semester in Washington, DC, where she studied international business and trade, and had the opportunity to intern for a large real estate company — an internship that sparked her interest in following a real estate track. As a marketing major Rabun also had the chance to participate in a course on venture entrepreneurship that teamed students from Clemson with students from the Otto-Friedrich University in Bamberg, Germany. The curriculum was structured around small group projects that had students from Otto-Friedrich University traveling to South Carolina to work with Clemson students, and had Clemson students travel to Bamberg for final project presentations. Rabun is deeply appreciative of what she gained from this hands-on learning experience and from the international component of the course.
Rabun looks back on her Clemson days as pivotal to molding her current career. “Arriving at Clemson I was shy and uncertain of where to direct my academic studies – little did I know that I would soon thrive on the busy campus,” she says. “I chose to focus on business because I always loved math and had a real interest in learning how to make money. I discovered that I also had a strong creative side and consequently picked marketing as my major because to me it was the perfect mixture of right brain/left brain problem-solving.” By the time Rabun graduated, she had served as president of the Clemson University Marketing Association, participated in the ILEAD Program, was a member of the Urban Land Institute, and the SERTOMA Service Club. Recognized as a Dean’s List student, Rabun was also awarded a Life Scholarship. During a summer break from Clemson, Rabun took the time to earn a South Carolina real estate license. As she departed Clemson, Rabun segued from her life as a student to a job as development associate for the planned neighborhood of Hammond’s Ferry, in North Augusta, South Carolina. A few years later Rabun took time off from her job and returned to academia. She entered the University of Miami and a year and a half later, in 2011, had earned a master’s degree in real estate development and urbanism. For her academic success, Rabun was presented that same year with the Outstanding Student in Real Estate Development and Urbanism Award.
Returning to Aiken, Rabun resumed her job at Hammond’s Ferry as the project manager while at the same time, set to work on a business idea that she was certain would not only lead to professional and personal fulfillment, but an idea that would benefit downtown Aiken and its people. It was a plan that had been incubating in her head since her days at Clemson and more recently as a graduate student who strongly defended the principles of urbanism. Rabun’s involvement in the Aiken Chamber of Commerce and as an appointed member of the Aiken Chamber’s blue ribbon panel on economic development gave her access to community leaders and contact with the people who mattered most to her — the everyday citizens of Aiken. “I learned that people in Aiken were hoping to revitalize their city and their economy,” Rabun says. “The people I talked to were looking for the next big idea — an idea that could turn Aiken into a more desirable place to live. People wanted to make Aiken a magnet for jobs and a place where young families could plant roots. I believed that my plan of creating a center for emerging small businesses was exactly in line with what people were talking about. I knew my next step was to find a downtown commercial building that could serve as a hub for small business owners and entrepreneurs, and so the search began.”
Eventually Rabun and her father came across a vacant 20,000-square-foot brick building on Park Avenue that was once the operations center for Regions Bank. It was the critical piece of real estate they were looking for. Although it had been long neglected and needed love and attention, Rabun found it ripe with promise due to its sound structure, size and prominent location in the heart of Aiken’s sleepy but quaint downtown. “I was inspired that this was an existing building, and we were getting the chance to breathe fresh life into it by preserving and repurposing it. I was not interested in buying property that had to be constructed from scratch.”
Caradasa, LLC bought the property much below the market price, which alleviated any trepidation Rabun and her father might have been grappling with regarding possible personal financial risk. “At the price we paid, the purchase made a lot of sense monetarily,” says Rabun. “We also saw this as an opportunity to do good for the community. We were turning 237 Park Avenue into a space where emerging small businesses could band together, share ideas, work independently and venture forth. As a social entrepreneur, I was very excited.”
As the building’s interior floor plan took shape, Rabun was faced with the challenge of transforming the existing traditional office style design into a non-conventional yet functional work environment that would appeal to entrepreneurs from a variety of different arenas. She decided to handle the design herself and let her creativity take over. “I wanted the inside to look urban, industrial, cool and professional,” says Rabun. “This was going to be different from any other office building in Aiken. I was determined to create a niche office space where forward-thinking entrepreneurs could work comfortably and be inspired.” Rabun enlisted help from local artists and artisans to enhance the décor with original art work, recycled lighting and refurbished furniture. What came with the property was used or re-fashioned. Giant metallic server tiles that were left behind when Regions Bank vacated the premises were re-purposed by Rabun’s mother, a long established fine furniture maker. These tiles were wondrously converted into stunning high-tech conference tables. When the renovation was completed, Rabun felt that with the design’s strong industrial style, the building resembled a modern day mill. The image of a mill evoked for Rabun a sense of people hard at work, of grit and productivity. It reminded her of Aiken’s history as a center for textile production, and she decided that the building would be called The Mill on Park.
Opening its doors in April, 2014, The Mill on Park has rented all of its 18 available offices. The offices vary in size — the 10’ x 10’ offices are sufficient space for one person, while the largest of the offices are suitable for as many as six people. The rent is very affordable. All utilities and amenities, such as copy machines, internet access, and conference space are included in the rent. For those true fledgling businesses, The Mill on Park offers a $10 per-day rate for desk rentals with its own shared conference room space. The camaraderie that has developed among the various business owners at The Mill on Park is apparent as you enter the building. The Mill even hosts social events to bring people closer together. “We have carefully planned this center to encourage success,” says Rabun. “We have removed many of the possible roadblocks that normally are part of opening a business. The Mill on Park is a comfortable landing place. Ultimately we want our entrepreneurs to outgrow this space and move on. When one business leaves for a larger work space, I am certain that we will have no difficulty finding a new tenant. We are already in demand.”
The current tenants, to name a few, include a financial advisor, two real estate companies, a construction remodeling company, a business strategy operation that specializes in non-profit clients, a writer, an engineering firm, an advertising agency, a corporate staffing company, a local affiliate of the Small Business Development Center, a start-up church, and a forward-thinking waste removal and recycling company that is working with Rabun to turn The Mill on Park into a zero waste facility, complete with an electric car charging station. “It’s amazing to see the passion that people have for their products,” says Rabun. “Working in a setting such as the one we have created really brings people together. Ideas are bouncing off one another and a true force of innovation is born.”
Partnering with Caradasa on this entire project is USC Aiken and the local Small Business Development Center. Providing programmatic support from offices onsite at The Mill on Park, USC Aiken and the Small Business Development Center help emerging entrepreneurs write business plans and conceive business models. They provide free counseling services to any burgeoning business owner. Their presence has turned the building into a center for “one-stop shopping.” A Mill Advisory Committee was formed to bring together a wide range of interested public and private stakeholders who are working for the good of Aiken. The Mill hosts an Innovative Entrepreneurship Forum for interested small business owners. This forum is one more example of the hum in the air as you walk through downtown Aiken,” says Rabun. “There is a rising spirit that has never existed before, and it is spinning off in a lot of different directions.”
Rabun’s hometown recognized her hard work and downtown revitalization efforts with the 2013 Aiken Young Professional’s Rising Star Award, and recently named her the 2014 Aiken Rotary Club Rotarian of the Year, and one of NBC’s 26 Women to Watch for 2014.
For Rabun, The Mill on Park is just the beginning of her career as a real estate developer. While she will remain at its helm, new projects that combine her respect for urbanism and her love of entrepreneurship will undoubtedly follow — projects that will stimulate the economy and awaken city life. Despite her enthusiasm, it has always been Rabun’s style to advance incrementally — one step at a time. It is an approach that worked for Rabun as a Clemson freshman and a method that she has built upon ever since.