Co-Work Space Aims to Energize a Neighborhood

Working from home can have its advantages but for some budding entrepreneurs, there may come a time when the laptop on the dining room table and the coffeehouse meetings with clients lose their luster. If you're growing to the point where you want to add an employee or two, the lack of a workplace becomes especially tricky, said Jeremy DeRoo, co-executive director of the Grand Rapids-based community development corporation LINC.
Enter the co-working space.

This phenomenon, wherein often-disparate businesses share working and meeting space, office equipment and even ideas, has taken flight in the last decade. In recent years, the area has seen the emergence of co-working spaces in downtown Grand Rapids, East Grand Rapids and Zeeland.  Now, a new co-working space in SE Grand Rapids is hoping to draw local business professionals, while keeping in mind a larger overall goal: revitalizing a neighborhood.

Urban LINC, the area's newest co-working space, opened its doors this June at the corner of Madison Avenue and Hall Street in Grand Rapids' Madison Square Neighborhood. It is housed in a former library that was renovated after sitting dormant for the better part of a decade. The total cost of the new building was approximately $1.7 million. Foundations, government grants and bank financing each contributed $500,000 for the project while $200,000 came from state tax credits. The LEED certified space also houses LINC's offices, a business incubator and a Grand Rapids Police Department community post. In the coming weeks, the building will also see the opening of the corridor's only sit-down restaurant, a breakfast and lunch diner being developed by Southern Fish Fry owner Robert Ball.

The Madison Square area has been a major target for neighborhood revitalization in the last decade. One way to measure the overall health of a neighborhood, says DeRoo, is its economic vibrancy.

"Small business development is one means to improve opportunities and remove barriers," he says.

Urban LINC aims to improve opportunities specifically in this neighborhood, where professional, for-profit businesses are in short supply. While the co-working space wasn't in the initial plans for the building at 1167 Madison Ave. SE, it became apparent during the planning process that it would be a natural fit for the space and for the community, says DeRoo.

Risk is part and parcel of starting a business, but costs associated with an office can be prohibitive for those just starting out. Colliers International's 2011 first quarter numbers indicate that the average asking rate for office space was $15.44 per square foot, per year for the West Michigan market. That rate is nearly $2 higher for the downtown Grand Rapids market.

Urban LINC offers rates for individuals, nonprofits and corporations on a per-day or per-month basis. The fees include all the expected workplace amenities: wireless internet, copy and FAX capabilities, access to meeting and training rooms, desks, lounge areas, parking and unlimited cups of coffee. Leadership development and other helpful classes will be offered in the building, placing a wealth of information at the fingertips of co-work space users.

"The [co-work space] takes away a huge burden for business owners," says Jorge Gonzalez, director of economic development for LINC.

Of course, unlike with a dedicated office space, users must share. But Gonzalez believes that this is a good thing for businesses. As past president of the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, he has a handle on what it takes to create successful business networks. DeRoo and Gonzalez agree that West Michigan has some work to do in the area of creating stronger social networks.

"One of the reasons for the co-work space in this business community," says DeRoo, "is to help build up an underdeveloped network of minority business owners. The goal for this building is to create stronger connections."

That's not to say that LINC is targeting only minorities to work in the space. Staff is hoping for a distinct mix of professionals from all business backgrounds, from the neighborhood and beyond. The space is a first for the area, and will give it a necessary element of a thriving neighborhood.

"One advantage," says DeRoo, "is that some of the professionals who use the space will get to see a neighborhood they might not otherwise see. At the same time, neighbors will see people working away on their laptops."

While LINC staff anticipates that the space will be a draw for business owners, it's not confined to those in the for-profit realm. Michael Daniels directs Grand Rapids-based nonprofit School-to-Career Progressions. His organization works with at-risk youth to improve grades and set goals for school and beyond. He recently signed on to use the co-work space. After 11 years in his position, he is thrilled to have extra space for meetings and trainings.

"What this space does is provide a location in the inner city-- in the community we serve," says Daniels, who is one of three co-work space users already using Urban LINC. (The others include a realtor and a translator.)

One other benefit, Daniels says, is Urban LINC's design. It's big, bright and provides plenty of space for working with others. The space also features the work of local artist Erick Pichardo and could serve as a gallery for the work of other artists in the future.

Gonzalez hopes to fill the space with a total of 20 users by the end of summer and, based on the inquiries he's had from prospective co-workers, believes that will happen. Anyone interested in learning more about use of Grand Rapids' newest co-working space should contact Gonzalez at [email protected].