Northfield entrepreneurs used to camping out in coffeehouses have a new cooperative workplace where they can operate and learn from each other.
Fledgling businesses in Northfield in need of a place to start up and grow have a new alternative to the coffeehouses sprinkled throughout the college community.
A coworking center, a type of business incubator where entrepreneurs can drop in to work alone or collaborate with each other, opened last week in the heart of the city's quaint downtown.
Located in a second-story office suite that decades ago housed the Northfield News, the center offers a variety of services, including work spaces, a conference room, WiFi, a networked copier/printer/scanner, mailboxes, coffee and "lunch-and-learn" sessions with business coaches. Membership rates start at $20 for a one-day pass and go up to $250 for 24-hour access for a month.
Launched by the North Enterprise Center, a business development nonprofit, the new venture is called SPUR. That's shorthand for "Strengthen Productivity Unite Resources," but the name also defines the incubator's raison d'etre, according to Executive Director Megan Tsui.
"Our goal is to accelerate business development, getting new businesses started and helping others expand," she said. SPUR is funded by $40,000 from the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation and Northfield's Economic Development Authority with a mission to create 10 new businesses and help 50 others expand or improve in the center's first year of operation.
Tsui, who already counsels businesses at the enterprise center, also will be providing that guidance at SPUR. But she said she hopes members embrace the full concept of coworking, which involves helping each other.
"What I would like is that everybody here at SPUR becomes a coach," she said.
Coworking ventures got their start on the West Coast several years ago and now can be found nationwide and in Europe. SPUR is modeled after a pair of similar operations -- one in Minneapolis's Grain Exchange Building and another in St. Paul's Lowertown -- operated by CoCo, short for Coworking Collaborative Space. The two centers have about 350 members, according to Kyle Coolbroth, CoCo's co-founder.
Tsui said some of SPUR's members may wind up being people who have previously traveled to the city to use CoCo's facilities. Others could be people who have operated their businesses out of their homes or have parked themselves and their laptops in area coffeehouses. "This will be a place where they don't have to compete with the shooosh noise of an espresso machine," she said.
Mary Schmelzer, executive director of Northfield's Chamber of Commerce, said the coworking site not only provides start-up businesses with a more professional working environment but also a downtown mailing address.
"That's something that can add legitimacy to your business," she said.
Some businesses that already have small offices could use the coworking center for flex space, she said.
Griffin Wigley, a longtime Northfield resident and independent Internet consultant, said the city is an ideal location for a coworking venture. Home to Carleton College and St. Olaf College, the town of 20,000 is full of cultural amenities that attract educated, independent workers.
Wigley, who also writes a Northfield community blog, said creating and expanding numerous small businesses could work better for the city than trying to lure a few large companies to town. "This is an alternative economic development model, given the recession and realities of what a big business might be looking for," he said.
Wigley and Schmelzer note that Northfield faces some challenges when it comes to attracting large businesses. There isn't an abundance of land, and some vacant properties would require substantial investments in upgrades and infrastructure improvements.
Northfield also is known for resisting big business, partly because of the uproar in the late 1990s when Target Corp. wanted to build a store in town. The hotly debated issue wound up being put to a vote, and it was narrowly approved. Other big-box retailers have arrived since then, although a couple have chosen to locate instead in nearby Dundas.
"You've got two camps here," said Jack Hoschauer, president of the economic development authority. "One camp wants Northfield to look the way it did when Jesse James rode into town, and the other camp wants to have economic development and growth. In my opinion those goals are not mutually exclusive."
Hoschauer said SPUR is part of larger effort to stimulate business development in Northfield. "It's a piece of what we need to do to support enterprises to keep them here so their businesses can thrive here."
Susan Feyder • 952-746-3282