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Suburban tech centers: where community meets co-working

Brian Blum president, BuildMore Workshop
Brian Blum president, BuildMore Workshop - Bob Perkoski
When Phillip Ogilby and his son Justin were looking for office space for their company, Cloud Takeoff, they briefly considered moving into the growing tech community in the Over-The-Rhine district in downtown Cincinnati.
Then they discovered the perfect office space was right in their own backyard – at the brand new Mason Tech Center.
 “(The Center) made it very easy to stay in Mason,” says Ogilby, whose business saved 60 percent of what it had budgeted for office space by staying closer to home. “It is Class A office space. You can go all the way into Cincinnati and you won’t find a lot of Class A office space. We’re outside one of the growing tech communities, but we see it as an overall net gain because of what we have in the suburbs that we wouldn’t have downtown.”
Traditionally, new businesses flocked to cities because of abundant office space and proximity to other businesses. However, many tech companies are now leaving the concrete jungles and developing in entrepreneurial clusters outside of urban areas. According to a study by the Brookings Institution, jobs within three miles of a city center fell from 24.5 percent in 2000 to 22.9 percent in 2010. During that same time frame, jobs in areas between 10 and 35 miles away from a city’s center grew from 40.9 percent to 43.1 percent.

Those numbers don’t surprise Mason mayor David F. Nichols. Nichols says attracting businesses to his community of over 30,000 people improves the quality of life there.

Tech Center lures jobs, jobs, jobs
“We have three concerns here. The first one is jobs, the second is jobs and the third is jobs,” Nichols says. “That’s the way it is anywhere in the country right now. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Democrat, Republican or an independent. We’re all talking about jobs. Some areas are delivering and some aren’t.”
Nichols, a retired CEO of Interlott Technologies, feels fortunate to live in a community that is striving to meet that expectation. City officials and Top Gun Sales Performance opened the Mason Tech Center on May 22. Currently Cloud Takeoff is one of the seven businesses taking advantage of the new workspace.

Cloud Takeoff offers software that helps contractors measure blueprints and share them digitally. Ogilby, who created the company with his son and wife, Jane Baysore, aims to do with blueprints what Google Earth did with maps. The Mason Tech Center is a boon that, just a few years ago, seemed outside of the realm of possibility.
“When the economy crashed in 2008, it was discouraging to turn on the news every day and see stories about the government looking to create jobs but no one was willing to help make that happen,” Ogilby says. “That’s exactly what the folks in Mason have done.
“We were just blown away by (the Mason Tech Center). It made it easier to grow our business to the next level because of the resources the folks at Top Gun and the City of Mason have put together.”
Building more, outside of the I-270 loop
Mason isn’t the only suburban Ohio community making things easier for entrepreneurs. In Dublin, a suburb less than 15 miles away from downtown Columbus, Brian Blum is giving entrepreneurs a chance to build their dreams -- literally. Blum owns the BuildMore Workshop, which offers a wide variety of metal and woodworking tools and supplies for inventors, entrepreneurs, engineers and contractors to build their projects. The workshop also serves as a meeting place for the creative set to kick around ideas while they are working.
“It’s always been my dream to develop a shop like this. It provides the resources for a community to build things that otherwise wouldn’t be possible,” Blum says. “I always saw a lack of machinery, space and tools (holding startups back).
Billed as being like "a health club for woodworkers, inventors, engineers, artists, crafters, builders and tinkerers," members can take advantage of professional equipment such as a CNC (computer numerically controlled) milling machine, table saws, lathes, drill presses and a robotics lab outfitted with 3D drafting software that can aid in realizing prototypes. The "community workshop" is open to the public and offers hourly and monthly rental rates. Users must take safety classes before diving into the action.
“(The best part of BuildMore) is seeing a person’s ideas come to fruition. People get that initial brain storm and (it’s cool watching) it become something they can take out the door.”
From LaunchHouse to EntrepreNeighborhood
While Mason and Dublin were ready-made neighborhoods, Todd Goldstein and LaunchHouse cofounder Dar Caldwell took more of a gamble when they chose to call Shaker Heights home for their new entrepreneur accelerator program. Goldstein describes the Cleveland suburb as a jumble of wealth and poverty.
“Shaker Heights has some of the wealthiest homes in the country but LaunchHouse is located in one of the hardest hit areas by the foreclosure crisis,” Goldstein says of the operation's Lee Road headquarters. “(We’re located in) a place most people didn’t even recognize as a part of Shaker Heights."
The Lee Road corridor, with its long stretches of unkempt lots and houses scheduled for demolition, hardly seemed like a good place to launch a business accelerator, but Goldstein and Caldwell saw promise in – of all things -- a 23,000 square foot abandoned car dealership with mold and asbestos issues. The city had allocated $500,000 to tear down the eyesore, but Goldstein and Caldwell convinced city officials to invest that money into turning the building into their headquarters instead.
“We said to ourselves, 'there’s an opportunity to not only transform (that building) but also the area immediately around it,'” Goldstein says. Now that their headquarters is fully renovated and bustling with activity, The LaunchHouse team is making good on the second part of that statement. They're branching out into the community in an effort to build an "EntrepreNeighborhood," a place where entrepreneurs can work, live and play.

To that end, the organization purchased two abandoned Shaker Heights houses earlier this year and transformed them into work/living spaces tailor-made for entrepreneurs, with multiple electrical outlets for inventors to test their gadgets, LCD projector systems and paint that turns entire walls into dry erase boards. Renters each pay $400 a month, which includes utilities.
“It was always a dream of my partner and I to provide not only shared office space and an investment group, but a place for entrepreneurs to live close to where they work,” Goldstein said. And it is a dream come true – for participants. On the first day the housing was made available to members of the LaunchHouse community, 19 startups applied for nine available spaces. LaunchHouse is now working with the city to purchase more homes in the area.
Matt Strayer and AJ Mihalic, the founders of Widdle, and Art Geigel, a co-founder of iOTOS, were the first three residents. Strayer, whose company is designing software to help people filter out unwanted information from their social media feeds, saw one of the houses transform from unlivable to more than accommodating.
“This place is absolutely gorgeous,” Strayer says. “The only thing they didn’t cover was cable TV and none of us watch that. This is a place where I can feel at home. I like having this distance from the city where I can focus.”
“They not only refurbished the house but they did things just for the entrepreneurs,” adds Geigel, whose company creates apps designed to help customers control beer taps, garage doors and other household products from a smart phone. “Basically we have all the space we could ever want. We can do whatever we want with it.”
Goldstein and Caldwell's live/work idea was inspired in part by Kansas City Startup Village, a collection of entrepreneurs that settled in the midtown section of Kansas City. It was founded in September 2012. In less than a year, it has grown to include 24 startups and 11 properties in which an array of startup and their attendant entrepreneurs work and live.
“The area is very homey and very quaint but the energy and the vibe in the village (draws people in),” says CTO Matthew Marcus of Local Ruckus, which was one of the first companies to call KC Startup Village home. “When we started this thing, we really didn’t know how it was going to play out but there have been a number of serendipitous moments along the way.”
That same energy seems to be blooming around LaunchHouse's new live/work expansion. “The neighbors have been very welcoming,” Goldstein says. “We set out to change the vibe of the Lee Road area. We’ve taken an area where no one would do business. Now you have hundreds of people going there every day to learn how to start their business.”

Photos Bob Perkoski
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