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Rural NC towns look to make their own coworking hubs

Main Street in Warrenton

Landon Cooper

YANCEYVILLE

On early mornings in Yanceyville, a Caswell County community about 70 miles northwest of Raleigh, you can often find small business owners parked outside of government buildings or McDonald’s, checking their email and trying to start their day from their cars.

That’s because just around 50% of the households in the rural county have access to high-speed internet, forcing them to make due with whatever they can find, the county’s economic development director, Cori Lindsay, said.

“Especially for our farmers and people who are working from home, (the lack of high-speed internet) really does hinder them,” Lindsay said in a phone interview. “A lot of them will drive considerable distances if they need to have a secure internet connection.”

This has hurt entrepreneurialism in the county, and has thwarted the town’s ability to attract and retain talent. Between 2010 and 2018, Caswell County’s population declined more than 4% to 22,698, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

And with the coronavirus pandemic forcing many people into remote work, Lindsay added, the issue has been pushed even more into the forefront.

In an effort to get around these obstacles, the county is looking toward the example of HQ Raleigh, a coworking company in Raleigh that has expanded rapidly in the past decade and become the launching pad for some of the city’s largest startups.

An old pharmacy serves a new purpose as a coworking space

In an old pharmacy that once served as a gathering space for the small town, Yanceyville is building its own coworking hub called CoSquare, which will provide small offices and fiber internet for small businesses. It will be the first of its kind in the county.

The CoSquare coworking hub is going into the site of a former pharmacy in downtown Yanceyville. The pharmacy served as a popular gathering spot in town. Google Street View

The community worked directly with HQ Raleigh to plan and develop the space, which will open next month in a limited capacity. CoSquare will also become an affiliate member of HQ Raleigh, meaning its users will be able to tap into HQ resources and even work at other HQ campuses on a limited basis.

Already, the coworking hub has one anchor tenant, an agriculture startup called Measur.io that tracks real-time data to give soil management recommendations. Measur.io went through the well-regarded Techstars accelerator, and is moving its headquarters from Chapel Hill to CoSquare.

Lindsay said the hope is that CoSquare will also reinvigorate the downtown area. Coworking spaces have been key assets in the resurgence of downtown Durham and Raleigh in the past decade. Across the Triangle, from providers like American Underground and The Frontier in Durham County to Loading Dock and HQ in Raleigh, they have helped birth hundreds of startups.

“Not only are we hoping for increased activity (downtown) because of this,” Lindsay said, “we are hoping that the businesses that are located within the coworking space grow enough to move out into the community.”

HQ Raleigh in Caswell County and Greensboro

Jess Porta, the director of HQ Raleigh, has been helping Caswell County set up its new coworking hub. HQ has expanded multiple times throughout Raleigh in recent years, and has steadily added to its affiliate network as well, including a hub in Greensboro.

Porta said she believes there will be a wave of coworking hubs in rural towns in coming years, as those cities try to emulate the networking effects seen in places like Durham and Raleigh. Already, HQ Raleigh has had conversations with three different rural communities, she said.

“We are going to see an entire network of rural communities,” Porta said, especially after COVID-19 speeds up the adoption of remote work. Even before the pandemic, she added, workers from high-cost places like California and New York were moving here to work at remote offices because of the cost of living.

Wilson, a city in eastern North Carolina, launched its own coworking space last year, and Raleigh-based RIoT, an internet of things incubator, is adding an accelerator there. And though it is more suburban than rural, Raleigh coworking provider Loading Dock is expanding to Wake Forest, citing the need for more access in northern Wake County.

“I think we are going to see that continue to spread out,” Porta said, “where people can have a rural lifestyle but can tap into big city resources.”

Linking rural and urban NC

A project similar to Yanceyville’s is underway in Warrenton, a small town in Warren County 58 miles northeast of Raleigh. There the town and county have come together to launch Frontier Warren with the help of the Research Triangle Foundation, the not-for-profit that manages Research Triangle Park.

Frontier Warren is meant to mimic RTP’s coworking hub, The Frontier, on a small scale. Nine of the 10 offices at Frontier Warren were already occupied when it opened last month. Its tenants include a commercial bamboo grower called OnlyMoso and the marketing company Tabletop Media Group, whose founder relocated from Raleigh to a farm in Warrenton.

The Frontier has been one of the most successful projects by RTP in recent years, turning old IBM offices into flexible space for startups and young companies. The four buildings that make up the Frontier are now home to 100 of the 300 companies based in RTP.

For the Research Triangle Foundation, the partnership represents a fulfillment of its mission statement to “create an economic impact for all citizens of North Carolina,” said Scott Levitan, the CEO of the foundation. For much of its history, the foundation has been laser focused on the 7,000 acres that straddle the border of Wake and Durham counties.

Frontier Warren is a new coworking space in downtown Warrenton. The town of Warrenton worked with the Research Triangle Foundation to launch the hub. Town of Warrenton

A lot of the state’s growth has blossomed around major job centers, like Research Triangle Park. Between 2010 and 2017, the state’s population grew by 738,000, and 43% of those people landed in just nine cities, including Cary, Durham and Raleigh, The News & Observer reported.

That concentrated growth has led to a divide in North Carolina, which has the second largest rural population of any state. Private employment grew 30% in the state’s urban counties between 2000 and 2018, but it fell about 6% in rural counties, The Charlotte Observer reported.

“This is an intentional step in how we uphold that (statewide) mission,” Levitan said.

Robert Davie, the town administrator for Warrenton, said he hopes the partnership will not only spur more startups in his rural community, but also establish meaningful links with one of the most innovative places in the country.

Already, the foundation has helped Frontier Warren create programming with the nonprofit NC IDEA for entrepreneurship education and a software programming class from Durham-based Code the Dream.

“It is a way for people to feel they’re connected with RTP,” Davie said. “But they can do it for a fraction of the price and have a quality of life that is absolutely fantastic.”

This story was produced with financial support from a coalition of partners led by Innovate Raleigh as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. The N&O maintains full editorial control of the work. Learn more; go to bit.ly/newsinnovate

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Zachery Eanes is the Innovate Raleigh reporter for The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun. He covers technology, startups and main street businesses, biotechnology, and education issues related to those areas.


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