Old Spaces, New Ideas

Coworking at Coco

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Coworking Spaces and the reinvention of the US Midwest—With the mention of coworking spaces one usually thinks of large, tech savvy cities that have always been in the world spotlight, such as New York City or London. But as the coworking movement has spread it has caught the interest of smaller cities. In the US Midwest coworking spaces have begun to open, largely in parallel with the evolution of the tech industry there. Spaces like CoCo and Platform 53 are now supporting and driving the development of new industries in the US Midwest with the use and renovation of historical buildings.

In the Midwest region of the United States, historic buildings that were economic centers in the early 1800 and 1900s are being reinvented into Coworking spaces, once again becoming important drivers of innovation and growth. Spaces such as CoCo in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, MN, as well as the newer Platform 53 in Covington, Kentucky, are two of the most prominent coworking spaces that have emerged in the Midwest. Both spaces renovated historic trade buildings to set up shop, showcasing an important trend common to coworking: the dynamic use of ‘old’ spaces to improve the local economy and inject new life back into these cities.

Today’s work force is in a state of evolution: it is increasingly tech savvy, allowing people to work remotely, and new definitions of  “the work place” are beginning to emerge. According to studies conducted by Deskmag, there are now around 2,500 coworking spaces around the globe. These spaces provide entrepreneurs who normally do not have a “traditional” office space with an opportunity to get away from their home offices or the local coffee shop, and interact with like-minded people.

The trend quickly spread to the tech centers of the United States, such as San Francisco and NYC, and has now moved towards the Midwest and even more rural locations throughout the country.

Every economic boom throughout the US has brought quick and significant changes to cities. As the original hubs moved on to different locations or the industrial landscape changed, many former economic hubs essentially became ghost towns.

For example, in the 1990s the car manufacturing industry moved overseas and away from the Midwest, leaving thousands of people unemployed. Traditionally, people in the US have moved around following the next big economic boom (i.e.: the historic California Gold rush), but as the country has developed more and more, there have been fewer opportunities to do so. Rather than leaving a city in search of the next big movement, young entrepreneurs and small-business owners have started to make use of local historic buildings in a coworking setting in order to find spaces for their new ideas, in the cities they call home.

Midwest Mill-city to Coworking-tech-city

Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota are known affectionately as the Twin Cities due to their close proximity, yet unique personalities. In the mid 1800s the two cities were the mill capitals of the US due to their location along the great Mississippi River, and in the 1880s they had almost 8 million people passing through them with almost 150 trains running daily.

This increase of people brought new settlers who helped develop the city into one of the largest in the US during the industrial age. With the shift from an industrial economy in the 1960s and 70s however, the city saw a huge decline in population as well as economic development. During these changes, as well as ones in the 1940s, historic buildings were torn down time and time again leaving only a small number of historic sites standing today. One building lucky enough to make it is the Minneapolis Grain Exchange (MGEX) building, built in 1881, which now houses the CoCo Coworking and Collaboration space on its fourth floor. CoCo is one of the most prominent coworking spaces in the US Midwest and the impacts they have had on their city have been nothing but positive.

CoCo was founded by Don Ball and Kyle Coolbroth in 2010, who were later joined by Jeff Heegaard and Roger Heegaard. The renovated space sits on the fourth floor of the MGEX, with high ceilings and bright windows. The formerly active tote board that used to flash grain prices is now frozen on its last day of operation, Dec 19, 2008. While the actual MGEX still operates on the building's 8th floor, the rest is mostly out of use. But as the startups who use the CoCo space continue to succeed, they develop the need for bigger spaces, and the first place many of them look is at the floors within the MGEX. The startup  NativeX recently expanded enough to need their own office and rented out and renovated another floor of the MGEX, marking the continued renewal of this historic building. 

Besides CoCo, other coworking spaces in the area include Birth Experts Loft which is a child-friendly space, and Joule which is located in downtown Minneapolis. These spaces, along with a few others, are working to expand and promote coworking and all it entails within the Twin Cities area. 

  Next page: Platform 53 and the future of coworking in the Midwest

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