RACINE — Seemingly disparate local businesses such as Delta Flex, Ludwig Manufacturing, Belle City Fire & Safety and O’Neil Leather all have one thing in common: Racine Business Center, the nation’s oldest business incubator, is their home.
The massive building dates back to about the end of the Civil War as a manufacturing building. But it has spent the last 100 years, since 1916, as a business incubator.
The block-long building at 1405 16th St. is an amazing testament to how factories were built in the latter 1800s and early 1900s. The original section was built in 1865 by Racine Wagon & Carriage Co. to manufacture a full line of spring vehicles and farm wagons. That building was expanded several times through 1905.
“They kept adding on,” said Emily Montgomery, whose family owns the 540,000-square-foot structure. “You can see where you’re going from building to building, where they just toenailed on.”
The post-and-beam building was built with high ceilings and large windows, “Because they needed all that natural light,” and in the building’s infancy, electricity was not widely available, said Emily’s husband Art Montgomery, the building manager.
About a half-century after its original construction, businesses were starting to rent space in what was then called the Sattley Building. In 1916 it was renamed Racine Industrial Plant as an official business incubator.
One of its first and most famous tenants was Arthur B. Modine, who founded Modine Manufacturing Co. there in 1916 when he patented the Spirex radiator for tractors. He eventually outgrew the Racine Industrial Plant, and by 1941 he had built his own factory and wind tunnel right next door, at 1500 DeKoven Ave. It’s still Modine’s world headquarters.
Racine companies that got their start at the Racine Industrial Plant include Webster Electric, Dumore, Midland Container Co., D.W. Davies, Scan-o-Matic, Marini Tool & Die, Racine Industries and vonSchrader Manufacturing.
Emily said her grandfather H.D. Rench had been an entrepreneur in the building in 1936. He owned Ideal Tub Co., which made Powderine, a cleaner that eventually became Host Dry Extraction Carpet Cleaner; it is still being manufactured there by Racine Industries.
By 1944 the building was falling into disrepair, Emily said, so Rench bought it with Fran von Schrader of von Schrader Manufacturing. They immediately started upgrading it.
“(Rench) wanted to make sure there would be affordable space for entrepreneurs,” Emily said.
The Montgomerys talked while sitting in the building’s Spirit of Racine Entrepreneurs Exhibit, a small museum within the building. At one point a loud rumble overhead moved across the ceiling. The building is full of steel-plated floors, and a pallet truck was being moved along one of them.
“We call that rolling thunder,” Emily remarked, “because that’s what it sounds like.”
She added, “These floors are so thick, nothing’s coming through.”
By 1995, a community of artists had begun forming inside Racine Business Center, attracted in part by its exposed brick and beams and large windows. “Once a community has been established,” Emily said, “people want to join in.”
Today, the building has 66 businesses, 61 artists sharing 52 studios, and two nonprofits, she said. Arthur estimates a couple hundred people work in the building.
Its greatest amenity, the Montgomerys say, is Chez Bob’s Café, the cozy second-floor restaurant that serves customers from inside the building and out. “It lends itself to a central meeting place for entrepreneurs, artists and merchandisers,” Emily said.
It’s something that sets the incubator apart from, for example, another one, Rapids Business Center at 1509 Rapids Drive. That one was modeled on Racine Business Center, Emily said.
Another amenity the center offers is 24-hour security, Art said. Tenants have 24-hour building access and key cards to the parking lot.
New business tenants typically find the incubator through its website, www.racinebusinesscenter.com, and word of mouth. About 20 percent of the space is vacant but it’s not all ready for occupancy, Art said.
Emily said she’s noticed a shift in how the incubator is used. “Historically, companies grew as large as they could and were bought out or had created their own space,” she said. “I think now they’re staying, usually.”