Municipalities traditionally have focused economic development efforts around convincing businesses to set up shop within town limits. But now, part of that effort can mean convincing workers who already live in town not to leave if they don’t have to.
That’s why Apex is the latest Triangle community to consider providing coworking space that can compete with successful ventures operating in nearby Raleigh, Durham and Holly Springs. The town has been scouting properties for more than a year, and in April, it conducted a study to find out what kind of space potential users would like.
“We get a lot of calls from individuals and small companies asking if we have coworking space,” said Joanna Helms, Apex’s director of economic development. “But our answer, unfortunately, is no.”
Workers such as IT professionals, freelance workers and entrepreneurs are becoming increasingly unchained from the office buildings that used to define white-collar work. As a result, they have more choices than ever about where to spend their days. For a variety of reasons, Apex wants to attract those workers, many of whom live in Apex but commute to Research Triangle Park, Cary, Durham or Raleigh.
More people staying in town can mean less traffic on the roads, and, if the space is appropriately sited, extra traffic for downtown retailers and restaurants. In the long term, Helms said, it could even mean a startup with roots in an Apex coworking space could one day outgrow it and create demand for more traditional office development in town.
“Our Town Council would like nothing better than to help those folks work closer to home,” Helms said. “A lot of them just need a laptop and a space. We can do this to show support for those kinds of workers and businesses, and then hopefully letting them move out of that space into a bona fide company started in Apex.”
The town is now asking whether it should make coworking space a reality.
Apex commissioned a study earlier this year that revealed demand for such a space, but there are disagreements among town staff and council members on the economic development committee members as to what the town’s level of involvement should be. Should Apex purchase the real estate? Should it provide tax and other incentives to potential coworking space developers? Or should it simply act as a liaison between those developers and property owners in town?
There’s no standard model for these arrangements, Helms said. Holly Springs invested $30,000 earlier this year to renovate the former Holly Springs Police Department for use as coworking space for a three-year period . The Coworking Station opened in April with 45 work stations, including private and shared offices, with access to standard office resources. In August, the Coworking Station said it would undergo further renovations to attract more entrepreneurs and accommodate current occupants.
Helms said that in the cases of Durham’s American Underground and Raleigh’s HQ Raleigh, municipal involvement hadn’t amounted to purchasing or subsidizing property.
Apex has pursued arrangements related to eight properties in the past year or so but has seen each of those fall through, Helms said. At a meeting of the town’s economic development committee Oct. 12, the Holland’s Jewelers building on South Salem Street emerged as the most recent candidate for conversion. No immediate decision was made regarding the building.
Town Councilman Bill Jensen, who also serves on the economic development committee, said he’d like to see the town be more aggressive in its pursuit of coworking space. Jensen’s chief priority for Apex is preventing it from becoming a bedroom community, where few residents spend the work day in town. Compared to attracting big businesses to traditional office parks, Jensen said, constructing or buying a suitable building is a step the town can make to attempt to attract some of these nomadic workers and keep them close to home.
Coworking space tends to be relatively inexpensive, Jensen said. Most people who seek it don’t need partitioned offices or fancy trim, and many of the more successful spaces in the area are previously vacant properties that have been upfitted and repurposed as comfy places to spend a day on a laptop.
“I am very eager to see this get going,” Jensen said. “It’s wonderful to bring in the big whale, but there aren’t that many big whales, and in fact, there aren’t even that many porpoises.”
Jensen continued with the sea creature metaphor.
“But if you can develop a few shad and move up the line,” he added, “look at how many more shad you can work with.”
Gargan: 919-460-2604; @hgargan