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Shared work spaces laboring: Coworking sites try to gain footing in Worcester
One real estate analysis estimates that coworking facilities covered ... Some corporations are even incorporating coworking into their traditional office facilities. In Central Massachusetts, coworking is still young, and its future is unclear.
Lisa Eckelbecker Telegram & Gazette Staff @LisaEckelbecker
WORCESTER – It’s real estateIt’s communityIt’s economic developmentIt’s all three, maybe.
It’s coworking, an office-sharing arrangement that has been around for years but is taking off in urban centers and attracting big investments from venture capitalistsOne real estate analysis estimates that coworking facilities covered 51 million square feet of office space in 2017, up from 8 million square feet in 2010Some corporations are even incorporating coworking into their traditional office facilities.
In Central Massachusetts, coworking is still young, and its future is unclearOne coworking operator plans to expand this year, but at least three coworking spaces closed or turned over last year and another has taken longer than expected to ramp up.
Coworking is still not widely known or understood in the region, some space operators said, and it doesn’t help that economic activity in Massachusetts continues to concentrate in Boston.
Barbara Finer, who ran TechSandBox in Hopkinton until shuttering the coworking space last year, said she knows people from the Interstate 495 area who travel to Boston just to cowork in that environment.
“The bottom line is we never got enough funding,” MsFiner said.
Coworking facilities typically offer members a place to work and amenities such as free wifi and coffee in exchange for daily, monthly or longer-term fees.
The similarities stop thereSome facilities feature hip furnishings to attract young entrepreneurs fresh from collegeOthers are more buttoned up, appealing to established professionals.
In Central Massachusetts, Clearly Coworking of Worcester offers a traditional spin on coworking, renting small offices or space at shared tables in 6,000 square feet of a former funeral home at 474 Grove StClearly Coworking also has conference and classroom space, mailboxes and services such as phone and printing optionsMemberships run from about $100 to $1,000 a month.
The Worcester CleanTech Incubator at 44 Portland Stcharges members $275 a month for access to a 6,000-square-foot work space and software but also professional consulting services with Executive Director Joseph Bush.
The Idea Lab, a 3,200-square-foot coworking space at the former Telegram & Gazette building at 20 Franklin St., seeks corporate and university members, as well as individuals who just need a place to jump start their businessesIndividuals can join for $125 a month, while corporate and university memberships generally start at $6,000 a year for up to five people per day.
Although the models differ, all seem intent on offering clients an alternative to isolated home offices and coffee shops.
“Coworking isn’t just offering space,” said Rob DelMastro, chief executive officer of Clearly Coworking, which he opened in 2015 because he grew weary of working from his own home“It’s developing a community.”
The idea of coworking has become so attractive that some established employers are incorporating coworking space into their officesHanover Insurance Group Incof Worcester just opened a 3,000-square-foot coworking-style space for employees, with floor-to-ceiling white boards on the ground floor of its Lincoln Street headquarters, and dubbed it an “innovation district.”
“As a company that does business in a very dynamic and competitive industry, we are committed to driving innovation across our business and creating an organization of the future, one that provides our employees with the modern work environment, tools and support they need to be successful,” Hanover said in a statement.
Coworking can be financially sensible for young businessesTop office rental rates can run more than $20 per square foot in downtown Worcester, or about $2,000 a month for a 10-by-10-foot spaceClearly Coworking members can rent a a small office accommodating four to five workers for $1,000 a monthThe CleanTech Incubator gives members access to space and equipment to develop prototype devicesThe Idea Lab has a shared conference room.
Blustream Corp., which develops software that goes with sensors that monitor the condition of valuable objects, operates out of the Idea Lab and does not “need one right now,” according to Mike Audi, Blustream chief technology officer“This is a good fit,” he said one day recently while eating lunch in the Idea Lab with an intern.
Brian Shea of Shea Consulting LLC founded his technology consulting business in 2012 and moved it to Clearly Coworking in 2016, saying he couldn’t have grown without professional coworking space.
“I maxed out my own availability,” MrShea said, on a recent afternoon as he and a colleague worked in an empty room at Clearly Coworking“I needed to start hiringIt’s tough to have team meetings in Starbucks.”
The appeal of coworking, however, does not always translate to quick financial successClearly Coworking did not become profitable until 2017, and MrDelMastro said he only began paying himself a salary this year.
The Idea Lab has about a dozen individual members, 13 corporate members and two university members, Worcester State University and Worcester Polytechnic InstituteBut the revenue has not been sufficient to cover all costsIts landlord, the Worcester Business Development Corp., has been subsidizing the Idea Lab and is now offering it free rent.
“In my mind, it’s headed in the right direction, however, we’ve got to get to sustainability so they get to the point they’re paying the bills, they’re paying us,” said Craig LBlais, WBDC president and chief executive.
One factor: Centers chasing young entrepreneurs may be competing with collegesIn Worcester, several colleges have opened their own centers for students who want to start businessesPetricore Inc., a video game company, recently moved from the Idea Lab to a new space at Becker College.
“Now, with the opening of the Colleen CBarrett Center for Global Innovation and Entrepreneurship, we are able to offer business support services in-house through MassDiGI’s New Ventures Center,” Becker College said in a statement, referring to its Massachusetts Digital Games Institute.
The Worcester CleanTech Incubator is aiming to have half its revenue come from members and half from sponsorships or grants, but so far its revenue is closer to one-third from members and two-thirds from sponsors and grants, according to MrBush.
“Startup companies inherently don’t have money,” MrBush said“It’s a very tough market to be in, trying to help startups.”
One of Worcester’s highest profile coworking organizations apparently halted activities last year, for reasons that are not clearRunning Start operated a 4,700-square-foot coworking space at 95 Prescott Stin Worcester and a satellite space in Oxford.
The landlords of both spaces declined to comment about Running StartSteven Daly, owner of the Prescott Street space, has kept it open and changed the name to Gateway Cowork CenterHe is seeking a new manager for the centerMark Marzeotti, owner of the Oxford building, said he tried to keep the space open for coworking but ultimately rented it out as conventional office space.
“It did OK, but it just was not sustainable,” MrMarzeotti said“I moved away with it and decided to stick with the permanent space leasing.”
MrDelMastro of Clearly Coworking remains bullish on the opportunities for more coworking in WorcesterHe’s hoping to open a second center in Worcester this year.
“There is a large percentage of people - the majority, I think - who want to be with people,” he said.
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