The Appalachian Center for Economic Networks (ACEnet) is a community-based economic development organization serving the 32 counties of Appalachia Ohio. The mission of ACEnet is to grow the regional economy by supporting entrepreneurs and strengthening economic sectors.
ACEnet staff accomplishes this mission by partnering with regional microenterprise and development practitioners to create a healthy local economy, allowing opportunity for all residents to start businesses, obtain quality jobs, and connect with other entrepreneurs for mutual benefit.
In 1985, a small group of community members committed to economic justice and building a healthy regional economy in Appalachia Ohio created ACEnet. Originally known as the Worker Owned Network, ACEnet focused on helping low-income people start worker-owned businesses. After receiving initial funding from the State of Ohio and the Commission on Religion in Appalachia, the three staff members began work in an office above the Athens College Bookstore. Their efforts gave rise to ten worker cooperatives including Casa Nueva Restaurant & Cantina and Crumbs Bakery.
In 1989, ACEnet staff began researching and developing strategies to create a greater number of sustainable jobs. While engaged in a world-wide study of successful models for community economic development, ACEnet learned about communities in northern Italy which contained small manufacturers with twenty or less employees. These manufacturers organized themselves into networks around opportunities presented by emerging niche markets. Areas with significant business network formations experienced substantial economic revitalization, including the generation of new businesses and dramatic increases in the standard of living for low-income individuals. Studying these Italian community models planted new ideas for sustainable, community-based, economic development in Southeast Ohio.
In 1990, ACEnet established a small business incubator designed to give start-up businesses a head start by providing below-market rates for space and services such as reception, fax, computers and other resources. Headquarters relocated to the incubator facility on Columbus Road and the space was designed to promote collaboration and networking among low-income small business owners. In 1993 ACEnet began developing the Food Ventures Center, a sector-specific incubator focused on the needs of companies producing specialty food products. The Food Ventures Center provided licensed commercial kitchen space for entrepreneurs to develop and produce their product lines without the financial burden of paying individually for licensing. By this time, the ACEnet staff had grown to twelve. In October of 1996, ACEnet celebrated the grand opening of the Food Ventures Center.
In the early 90’s, ACEnet realized that for small businesses to thrive, business owners needed to learn to use computers for everyday business practices. Technology showed specific importance in gaining access to new markets, sector-specific resources, and facilitating communication with business peers. ACEnet became involved in technology projects and conducted trainings to make technology accessible to local businesses.
Today, ACEnet continues to provide incubation space and operate the Food Ventures Center. Recent efforts include helping business owners utilize new technology to promote their businesses. To assist local businesses in remaining competitive in the age of social media, ACEnet has held a number of well-attended workshops on utilizing social media platforms to engage consumers.