The group who runs a coworking space in Holly Springs wants to open something similar in downtown Apex, and the Apex is considering whether it should pitch in some taxpayer money to help get it off the ground.
Joanna Helms, Apex’s economic development director, presented a proposal at the March 7 Town Council meeting that calls for turning the second floor of 121 N. Salem St., the space above Wake Remodeling, into coworking space. It could be used by startup businesses, the self-employed and those who work remotely.
The council voted 4-1 to direct town staff to begin drawing up a contract.
Coworking Station, which already operates coworking space in downtown Holly Springs, would manage the space and lease it from Wake Remodeling, which owns the building. The downstairs business is a convenient landlord, said Jon Harol, Coworking Station’s owner, because the space hasn’t been occupied in about 40 years and will need some major upfitting.
The proposed three-year contract would cost Apex about $120,000. Most of that money would be paid in the form of annual rent subsidies for the first three years Coworking Station occupies the space.
The 2,300-square-foot space would feature six private offices, seven office suites, a conference room and a lounge.
Coworking space has been a priority for downtown development as Apex attempts to keep fewer people from leaving town each day for work. An increasing number of tech workers and entrepreneurs enjoy flexibility with respect to where they spend their work days. Providing a place for those workers downtown could keep commuters off the roads and inspire workers to shop and eat at downtown local businesses.
Harol said that Holly Springs’ downtown, which is currently home to few local eateries, has been the site of renewed interest from restaurant developers since the Coworking Station opened nearby. He ties that directly to demand created by the employees who work there and their clients.
“Apex saw the stimulus Holly Springs experienced from the coworking community and asked if we could do something similar,” Harol said. “That will be some of the first commercial development in downtown Holly Springs in 18 years.”
The Holly Springs Town Council agreed to invest up to $50,000 to renovate the town’s former police department to be outfitted for Coworking Station. Coworking Station also has a three-year agreement with Holly Springs; it opened in April 2016.
The space features 45 work stations, including private and shared offices, with access to office resources like high-speed internet and off-site staff to provide tenants with technical assistance. Rent varies depending on how long someone needs the space, but it includes free beverages, unlimited internet and inexpensive conference room rentals.
In the long-term, Apex supporters hope local startups incubated in these informal office settings will grow large enough to demand more traditional, Class-A office space – the type Apex has been eager to fill with larger corporate clients and job-creators.
Mayor Lance Olive said he had questions about whether Apex could gurantee its money would have that effect. Olive and councilman Gene Schulze support incorporating performance metrics into the contract that would establish whether the startups hosted downtown translate into an economic benefit for Apex.
“I certainly don’t want to see us become an incubator for people who end up in RTP or Raleigh or elsewhere, because we’re not benefiting our community,” Olive said. “We’d be exporting jobs out.”
Schulze, the only council member to vote against the continued pursuit of a contract, said he didn’t believe it would be a responsible use of taxes.
“I agree with everything they’re trying to accomplish as far as attracting startup businesses,” Schulze said. “I do think it would be good for downtown Apex and Apex in general. I just disagree with the town getting involved with that kind of project, simply because it’s a risky venture. If it was worthy of taxpayer money, there would be private investment involved to make it happen.”
Gargan: 919-829-4807; @hgargan