It was early enough to still be dark on a Thursday morning when I pulled into Kendallville for the first time. A light January snow was coming down on the Midwest Main Street town, and as the morning sun started to peek through, the historic façades showed off the town’s charm, and it was easy to see why families had been coming to Kendallville for over 150 years. After a quick stop at the local coffee shop to refuel and check my phone (WhatchamaCAKES - easily one of the best coffee shops I’ve been to!) I stepped out into the snow.
Before heading off to meet up with the community leaders who had invited me to town, I took a few minutes to walk the downtown district and take in the ambiance of the town as it began to come to life in the early morning. Without fail, exploring a new town, hot coffee in hand after a long drive, is one of my favorite experiences. I think a lot of us take the charm and uniqueness of our hometowns for granted, and the first time taking in a new town is always an amazing reminder of all the reasons we love and live in our own small towns.
As has become typical with my visits to towns across the Midwest, we first met at the shared police station and city hall. Our group consisted of the Main Street director, representatives from the EDC, and local politicians - and the topic was coworking.
Long story short, a few visits later, we’d selected the perfect, underutilized, historic building to house the coworking space. The Main Street team secured local funding for the purchase, restoration, and furnishing of the space, and before construction work even concluded, local entrepreneurs had claimed offices and desks.
Kendallville, like so many small towns, represents an opportunity to proactively embrace a growing trend in entrepreneurship nationwide. Established and aspiring entrepreneurs are looking for a place to live, work, and play that not only provides safe, family-friendly neighborhoods, great schools, festivals, farmers' markets, and events, but also offers an entrepreneurial ecosystem that is modern, connected, collaborative, and supportive.
At the heart of this ecosystem is a coworking space that offers a physical location to bring all of these resources to the community.
In an incredible example of history repeating itself, it was often these same opportunities that led adventurous entrepreneurs of the early and mid-1800s to explore and establish these towns. It seems extremely fitting that the opportunities and values that launched small towns across middle America will end up being the same ones that save them.
It may seem an audacious claim that something like establishing a coworking space could be a catalyst that leads to the revitalization of an entire town, but I stand by the claim, and if you look at how we strategically help community leaders launch coworking spaces and establish strong entrepreneurial ecosystems, I think you’ll start to see why.
The vibrancy and success of small towns across America rely on two things (in my opinion): people and places. Coworking combines those two things in such a way that the effects rapidly expand beyond the walls of the coworking space and throughout the town. It’d be easy to start with the place as the most important feature, but truly it’s the people who lead the way. The dedicated community leaders, the Chamber of Commerce staff, the DDA or Main Street director, the city managers and local business owners, who set the tone and bring the energy and excitement. The ecosystem is born in the first whispers between them at a planning commission meeting or a city council meeting, and the tone and vibe of the space and ecosystem itself are extensions of the people at the heart of it - a reminder of why it’s so critical for communities to recruit and support great leaders.
The people help determine the place, and our goal is to find a place that will bring out the best in the people who follow as coworking members and business owners in the community. We focus on finding existing historic assets that are vacant or underutilized. Typically smaller buildings full of plenty of character, and prominently located on or near Main Street. Restoring these buildings is an outward, visual sign to the community that the town is worth investing in and that the history of the town is worth preserving before the space is even activated.
Inside, the spaces are intentionally designed with biophilic and proxemic intentions (incorporating natural elements and considering the evolution of human behavior as it pertains to personal space) to achieve a “love it or leave it” aesthetic that can instantly connect with guests. These spaces are designed to inspire creativity, collaboration, and promote a sense of belonging and community that people don’t have in their home offices.
As the space is established, many communities are amazed at how many entrepreneurs start to come out of the woodwork. Oftentimes it’s hard to know when someone has a home-based business or works remotely, and if they aren’t given a reason to come to town and talk about it, they don’t. Despite what many think, most people enjoy working around other people (did you know there’s a trend among home workers of getting on a video call with a total stranger as you both sit and work so you aren’t alone?!) and when these people begin to get together in a well-designed space, the magic starts to happen.
The coworking space brings people out of their homes and into town. And it’s not just the coworking space that benefits; the local coffee shop sees more foot traffic as workers step out to stretch their legs, the local cafe sees more lunch patrons, the local florist sells more bouquets and cards, and as members outgrow the coworking space, we see more demand for Main Street commercial properties. As vacant properties are filled with thriving businesses, demand for local housing increases, and the effects continue to ripple out further and further into the community.
As one part of a well-thought-out strategy for a town, coworking truly can have a tremendous impact on saving and revitalizing a community, and the barriers to entry for launching a great space are significantly lower than most other business models.
I’ll leave you with this. The last time I left Kendallville, the second hot coffee of the visit in hand, it was an uncharacteristically warm November day. I drove past houses with kids playing out in front, drove past the amazing library that overlooks the most picturesque lake, a little further out I chose the backroads instead of Route 6 and enjoyed the fields and farmhouses. In the end, this is what it's really about. Creating places where people can enjoy life and enjoy living. It’s about strengthening the values of community, family, and tradition. The reason I’m so passionate about coworking isn’t about spreadsheets, ROI, or tax incentives; it’s because, to me, coworking represents the creation of an environment where people can find a better way to work for a better way of life.
If you, or someone you know, is a community leader and interested in learning how The Integrated Life Company can assist you in your pursuit of a stronger town, please visit www.integratedlifeco.com/overview or email firstname.lastname@example.org.