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MATTOON -- The planned Cross County Innovation Center that would provide startup space for entrepreneurs in offices at the Mattoon mall has received a $75,000 grant from the Google.org Impact Challenge program.

Innovation Center organizers announced Thursday morning during an event at the Cross County Mall that a statewide grant competition selected 10 Illinois nonprofits, including the Cross County project, with ideas to create economic opportunities in their communities.

"(The center) is needed to help our rural talent and encourage business growth from within our community," said Rex Barnes, a volunteer with the Mattoon in Motion community planning effort. The center is one of Mattoon in Motion's economic development goals.

Now, the public has the chance to select the best of the 10 projects to receive the People's Choice Award and an additional $250,000 in Google grant funding. Community members are asked to show their support for this project by visiting g.co/illinoischallenge and casting a vote for the Cross County Innovation Center. Voting will be open through 11:59 p.m. Feb. 14.

The Mattoon-based Rural King company, which owns the mall, is donating space for the Innovation Center. Blake Pierce, director of real estate for Rural King, said the center will be located in 6,000 square feet of office space on the north side of the Cross County Mall, just west of the entrance to the former Carson's store.

The center will serve as a mixed-use, co-working space for small businesses, startups, and nonprofit organizations. Members of the Innovation Center will receive a variety of business support services. The space will also be the new home for the ClassE program that helps Coles County high school students learn how to become entrepreneurs.

"Now we have a space in place where entrepreneurs can get resources and connect with the community to make their businesses grow," said Jeanne Dau, sponsor of ClassE.

Organizers reported that the $75,000 grant will fund the first of three phases for the development of the Innovation Center.

The first phase will focus on retrofitting the space and updating the electrical, plumbing and communication lines. The second phase of the project will provide completed work spaces with finished interior design and is projected to cost approximately $250,000-$300,000. The third phase will include more community partnership for support services and operations.

“If we win the $250,000, the Innovation Center will be able to open in August 2019. If we don’t win the People’s Choice Award, the opening will be delayed to allow for additional time to raise funds," Mattoon Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Ed Dowd said in a press release.

Amanda Lessley, president/CEO of the Southeastern Illinois Community Foundation, said during the announcement event that the area has lost support services for entrepreneurs in recent years due to declining state funding and other factors.

These lost services include the Small Business Development Center office, the SCORE volunteer organization, and Eastern Illinois University’s Business Outreach Center.

The loss of business was identified as one of the top five concerns by Mattoon in Motion. This community volunteer organization identified economic and business development as one of its top goals. They began to explore ways to start new businesses, create jobs, and retain talent in the area. Dowd and Peace Corps Fellow intern Carlos Ortega partnered with Mattoon in Motion volunteers Jonathan and Clair Kaye to assemble the initial grant application.

More information about the Cross County Innovation Center can be found online at https://mattooninmotion.com/our-innovation-center/. Mattoon in Motion is a fund of Southeastern Illinois Community Foundation nonprofit organization.

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Contact Rob Stroud at (217) 238-6861. Follow him on Twitter: @TheRobStroud

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Rob Stroud is a reporter for the JG-TC, covering the city of Mattoon, Lake Land College, Cumberland County and areas including Oakland, Casey and Martinsville.

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