by Guest Blogger, Frank Hecker
I’ve lived in Howard County almost ten years, and have spent most of that time commuting to Bethesda. I now work out of my home. (I’m currently living in southeast Howard but soon moving to Ellicott City.) Working from home is convenient (I can just plop down on the couch with my laptop) but also simultaneously distracting and boring; as when I commuted to Montgomery County, I don’t really feel that connected with the community I live in.
I work in the Internet/web space and have spent most of my career working for companies based in San Francisco or Silicon Valley. One of the latest trends to start in the bay area and spread outward is that of coworking: “a movement to create cafe-like community/collaboration spaces for developers, writers and independents“. In essence coworking is a 21st century approach to the traditional problems of finding both cheap office space and a good place to hang out.
As with many things in the 21st century, the roots of coworking go way
back, for example to the coffee houses of London and the functions they served as meeting and work places for businessmen and writers. In its modern form “coworking” as a concept was apparently first conceived of by Brad Neuberg, then popularized by Chris Messina and Tara Hunt (creators of the Citizen Space coworking space in San Francisco), Jay Dedman and Ryanne Hodson (creators of The Hat Factory, another San Francisco coworking space), and others. It’s now attracting the attention of the mainstream business press. Coworking spaces typically offer relatively low rates (compared to traditional shared office spaces and dedicated offices), an informal and friendly atmosphere, and even interesting after-hours events.
I’m very interested in coworking spaces in Howard County, but at least based on online evidence (e.g., doing Google searches for “coworking” and “Columbia“, “Howard County“, and “Ellicott City“, or looking at the coworking wiki and discussion list) it seems as if absolutely nothing is going on. I can’t even find any evidence of coworking activity in Baltimore.
I think a good test for the viability of Columbia and Howard County as a place to live (as opposed to a place to sleep in between commutes out of county) will be whether it will ever have (or could have) the combination of demographics and spaces that could make coworking viable. You basically need young (or at least young at heart) professional workers who are self-employed or in very small firms, combined with relatively low-cost flexible and repurposable spaces located near (or even co-located with) amenities like coffee shops, restaurants, etc.
Right now I get the sense that in Howard County there isn’t a sufficient critical mass of people in the right demographic, and few if any suitable spaces even if there were people to take advantage of them. But need this always be the case? With over 40,000 professional/technical workers in Howard County and future trends favoring small entrepreneurial businesses, I have to believe that at least one in a hundred of these people might be interested in coworking arrangements; that’s a few hundred potential customers.
Leaving aside the question of demand and looking to the question of supply, it seems to me that in an ideal world coworking spaces would be located in one or more Columbia village centers. I don’t know if the economics and other issues would work out, but assuming that suitable square footage was available for the coworking facility itself, it seems like otherwise a village center could have the basic requirements for a Columbia version of a coworking space: ample parking, some sort of “hangout” place (e.g., bagel or sandwich shop, coffee bar, informal restaurant) for lunch or breaks, a copy shop to supply basic office services like shipping and printing, and so on. With large retailers and restaurant chains focused on “big box” centers and even smaller retailers shunning the village centers in favor of newly-built specialty retail centers, perhaps coworking spaces and small businesses supporting them could be key elements in updating the original Columbia vision for the 21st century.
As implied by my first comments above, although a Howard County resident I’ve been pretty of touch with matters Columbia- or Howard County-related; has anyone ever tried or even proposed something like this? If not, is anyone else interested in pursuing this idea?
P.S. If you want to edit the “CoWoCo” wiki page just linked to, the password is the topic of this post, with the two “o”s replaced with zeroes.