Coworking spaces fuel mountain town entrepreneurs
By Nathan Allen | Photographs by GP Martin
Ten years ago, Cindy Coleman lived in Atlanta, Georgia and worked for CNN as a graphic artist. The commute was a drag, but easy airport access meant Cindy and her husband could vacation in Alaska and Montana. Still, the Colemans wanted to call the mountains home. So they moved to Durango, Colorado, beneath the 14,000-foot San Juans. Early clients of Cindy’s graphic design business included the founders of DurangoSpace, a coworking office. She designed a logo for the fledgling business and became a regular. As the space filled, she found new clients.
Coworking got its start in the San Francisco tech scene circa 2005. Independent coworkers maintain their freedom, but get access to a structured environment and a community to bounce ideas off. As of 2013, 110,000 people filled 2,498 coworking spaces worldwide—with roughly a third of those offices located in the United States. The overall trend follows a shift toward a sharing economy, where consumption becomes more collaborative. Think city-sponsored bike share programs and vacation rental by owner sites like Airbnb. This style of exchange is already common in mountain towns where residents have long bartered, carpooled, couch surfed, and shared the harvests from community gardens. Not surprisingly, coworking spaces in mountain towns are on the rise from Tahoe to Maine.
They might even be fundamental to the economy. In a census of 536 American micropolitan communities—those with 10,000 to 50,000 residents—oil and gas boom towns in North Dakota demonstrated the most bullish growth. Given that fossil fuels are finite, that growth is likely fleeting. The long-term growth centers? Mountain towns dominate the top of the chart. Concord, New Hampshire heads the most recent list, followed closely by Barre, Vermont. Durango put Colorado in the top 20, and Jackson, Wyoming, and Truckee, California make the top 100. Not coincidentally, each of these regions also boasts coworking spaces. “A lot of folks come to test-drive the city,” says Jack Llewellyn, executive director of the Durango Chamber of Commerce, whose office fields weekly inquiries about coworking spaces. “They start at DurangoSpace, grow their business, and then relocate to a larger office.”
“If you could extract the DNA of a seasonal employee who shows up in a ski town and the DNA of an entrepreneur, it would be exactly the same,” says Rich Staats of the Vail Leadership Institute, which runs the BaseCamp coworking space. “Both are risk takers.” Before coworking caught on, such entrepreneurial types often ran their businesses from local cafés with free WiFi. But the coffee shop shuffle got old for Colorado media professional Amy Kemp. “On phone calls I had to yell louder than the baristas shouting orders over steamers,” she says. So Kemp opened Elevate coSPACE this fall in a former art gallery in Frisco, Colorado. Desks rent for $29 a day; tenants get free coffee and coordinate Friday meet-ups at local ski resorts.
Mountain travelers or college students who can extend their vacation with a few productive hours at the desk also benefit from the available spaces. There’s even a new coworking network accessed off one season pass—the Mountain Coworking Alliance has partners in Park City, South Lake Tahoe, and Basalt, Colorado.
Eight years after her move from Atlanta, Coleman still relies on DurangoSpace. She buys a 15-punch pass for access to meeting rooms and a desk. While she’s there she talks with members about web design, trades business leads, or hangs out at the monthly happy hours. “Coworking is a community, not just a physical space,” says Jasper Welch, founder of DurangoSpace. “We worked to create it, but the coworkers make sure it runs smoothly. We want a culture of innovation—a space where people can start something big.”
The Mountain Coworking Alliance
Tahoe Mill Collective | Alpine Meadows, CA | tahoemill.com
Tahoe Mountain Lab | South Lake Tahoe, CA | tahoemountainlab.com
Spark Jackson Hole | Jackson, WY | sparkjh.com
Assemble Park City | Park City, UT | assembleparkcity.com
DurangoSpace | Durango, CO | durangospace.com
River CoWorks | Basalt, CO | rivercoworks.com
BaseCamp | Avon, CO | vailleadership.org/basecamp
Elevate coSPACE | Frisco, CO | elevatecospace.com
From the Early Winter 2014 issue.