Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Coworking in Round Rock: A Conversation with Will Hampton, Director of Communication, City of Round Rock

After my SXSWi2010 panel "What Coworking Tells Us About the Future of Work," Will Hampton approached me and suggested we chat sometime about the City of Round Rock's efforts in this direction. I had heard something about these efforts, and was especially interested in looking at a coworking model in which local government was involved, so I was happy to take Will up on the offer.

So, on Monday, I drove up quite early to beat the traffic, parking near City Hall. Since I was early, I grabbed a coffee and some breakfast tacos at Star Co, which has a great location on E. Main Street and turns out to be a nice place to get some work done. (More on this later.) At the appointed time, I walked across the street and met Will at City Hall.

City Hall is one street over from E. Main Street, but it backs up to a building directly on E. Main. This building was purchased by the City a year ago and has just been renovated, Will told me, and much of it will go toward expanding the City's offices, housing the Visitors' Bureau, and hosting an art space. But some of the building has not been programmed yet -- and Will sees a potential for a coworking space.

Why a coworking space here? Will saw a presentation on coworking at SXSWi2009, moderated by Tony Bacigalupo and featuring site owners from Caroline Collective (Houston), Indy Hall (Philadelphia), Office Nomads (Seattle), and Souk (Portland). And he saw the potential for a coworking space to attract the Creative Class to Main Street, helping to revitalize the core of Round Rock. After all, he thought in 2009, "we have this building we just bought." And a coworking community has already started in Round Rock - a Jelly, which has been held at Star Co for just over a year. The Jelly draws an eclectic mix of people, heavy on the tech crowd, particularly people who have been recently laid off by large tech companies. But the community also includes a freelance photographer and a writer. (He quotes one Jelly member as saying that Jelly changed his life by helping him to focus and to network.)

Others have also seen the potential. For instance, he says that the Williamson County Entrepreneurs Network has also shown interest.

So right now, Will has identified two options for opening a Round Rock coworking space. Both would be initiatives in which the City would attract and facilitate a coworking facility -- but the City is not itself going to go into the coworking business. The two options are (1) to open a coworking space in the City's new building, in currently unprogrammed rooms, and (2) to open a space in a nearby building for lease.

Option 1: Coworking in the City's Building
As I mentioned above, Will says that two open-plan rooms have not yet been programmed, and he sees them as potential coworking spaces. Both are on the second floor, and both have lots of natural light from windows facing E. Main Street. The first is a 1600 square foot space, a large rectangle:

The second is approximately 1200 square feet and is a more irregular shape, with windows facing a public green:

Both are just a short flight of stairs from a potential 800 square foot conference room, suitable for client meetings and presentations, with windows overlooking the green:

This conference room is just across the hall from the arts space, which will feature local artists and juried competitions, with receptions planned on the green. The green, Will says, would also be a great place for the farmer's market -- which currently meets nearby in the parking garage. The arts space will open in early May.

In considering this option, the City sees the potential of leasing coworking space to an established operator at a reasonable rate. The idea is to pull the Creative Class to downtown Round Rock, keeping local businesspeople who currently commute to Austin or work out of their houses. "I'm interested in activating downtown," Will told me more than once.

On the other hand, Will tells me, the City might need the extra space as flex space. So that brings us to Option 2.

Option 2: Coworking on Main Street
Option 2 is a building for lease just two blocks from the city building. The space is very different from Option 1: It hasn't been renovated yet, the building is older, and the space is essentially a long hallway with a succession of small rooms. Rather than trying to photograph each of these, I took a video with my phone. Apologies for the quality.

As you can see, this space is quite different, and the warren of small rooms is less conducive to the open-plan sort of coworking I've seen at Cospace and Conjunctured. Also, it strikes me as I watch the video that there are no windows. But the space could be suitable for an incubator, and I suggested that Star Co (just across the street) could serve as an extension of the space for open-plan coworking.

In this case, the City's role would be more as a facilitator or connector. The City doesn't plan to buy or lease the space or to compete with the private sector. But it does want to engage in "placemaking," in creating a "third space" that would be attractive to Creative Class workers.

At this point we moved to Star Co, which is, as I said, a very nice place to work. The back room was already starting to fill with people, working singly on laptops or clustered in twos and threes, getting business done. We grabbed a table and chatted about the community's long-term vision for Main Street. As project manager for the Downtown Master Plan, Will is invested in making this vision a reality.

That vision, Will told me, was of a denser urban space that was more attractive to the Creative Class. Along with other plans (creating a larger town green, reconfiguring a busy street), coworking could support a downtown with a "more organic feel," a downtown that is more "funky" and vital. Coworking could be a differentiator for Round Rock, separating it from Cedar Park and Pflugerville, and make "good business sense for the city."

I've seen several different models of coworking, some in Austin, some on the Coworking Google Group: as a loss leader, as a nonprofit or not-for-profit, as a for-profit business, as a way for existing businesses to recover excess building capacity, as a service provided by incubators, as a center supported by business development grants. When I first heard of Round Rock's efforts, I thought they would fit that last model. But I was impressed by the community's vision and the fact that it involved public-private partnerships that are heavy on private initiative: The City isn't trying to shoulder the burden of starting a coworking space, it's trying to attract a space that will support itself while supporting the City's vision.

The question that occurred to me as I toured the spaces, though, was: Are these the right spaces? Do they offer the right mix of open-plan, conference, and private spaces? Can people make phone calls, conduct presentations, isolate themselves when needed, but still network and bat around ideas when needed? Right now, without furniture and without renovation of Option 2, it's hard to tell.

On the other hand, as I remarked to Will at Star Co, Main Street could function as a larger ecosystem that could make up for the limitations of the individual spaces. For instance, I could imagine coworkers working in Option 2 when they needed to place phone calls, collaborate closely on a project, or take a client meeting; trip over to Star Co when they wanted to do some open-plan coworking; and take a break on the Green or in the art space. Similarly, I could see coworkers doing open-plan coworking in Option 1 and conducting meetings downstairs - although I'm not sure where they could take private phone calls. (Maybe in booths.)

In any case, I see a lot of potential in this effort. If you're thinking about starting a coworking space, do think about sending Will an email.


Sheila Scarborough said...

Thanks very much for your thoughts, Clay. I started the Round Rock Jelly in February 2009, and city communicators Will Hampton and Brooks Bennett have been invaluable supporters from the very beginning. Our group also includes local business owners (Promise Pizza,) a real estate agent, an LCRA/tourism expert and often one of the guys from North Austin's CoSpace stops by. It's a terrific gathering.

I'm proud to live in such a visionary city, and will follow downtown coworking developments with great interest.

Clay Spinuzzi said...

I'll be following these developments too - these developments in Round Rock are really exciting, I think. Thanks for stopping by the blog!

Ansa said...

Hi! I just moved to RR from Austin and am really interested in getting to know the local coworking crowd. At the moment, I still commute into Austin but would love to be a part of something here. Where can I learn more about the RR Jelly? Is there some way I can help with organizing a co-working space?

Clay Spinuzzi said...

Hi, Ansa. Unfortunately I'm not following RR coworking the way I was when this post was written. You might contact some of the more active coworking spaces in Austin (Conjunctured, Cospace, Link) - they usually keep close tabs on coworking developments in the area.