Axis901 started with a problem-solving idea. As Mark Pellegrini, Director of Planning and Economic Development for the town of Manchester explains, when First Niagara acquired NewAlliance Bank a lot of excess bank owned real estate was left in a prime location on Main Street in Manchester, CT. The community was concerned about the number of jobs leaving and the surplus property, and everyone wondered, what’s going to happen here?
Pellegrini, who was becoming aware of the growing popularity of co-working spaces, seized the opportunity to develop one in the empty space.
With a basic understanding of the background of how Axis901 began, Innovation Destination: Hartford toured the space with Pellegrini and Heather Guerette, Community Development Program Manager for the town of Manchester, who are both part of the Axis901 staff. While there, IDH met some Axis901 members and discovered what they enjoy most about the co-working space.
IDH: Tell us how you came up with the Axis901 concept.
PELLEGRINI: Part of the town’s strategic plan was to create some kind of destination or different kind of draw in downtown Manchester. At the same time, Manchester Community College (MCC), wanted to have a presence in the community on Main Street as opposed to just being out at their campus.
The town ended up getting the building on Main Street for $1. First Niagara gave the college foundation a $500,000 unrestricted grant, which the college used to create a presence in the building’s downstairs space, which it uses for classes, seminars, performances and an art gallery. But then we had the second floor, and the question was what do we do with it?
I knew The Grove co-working space was getting a lot of traction in New Haven. We thought it seemed like that would be something different. So based on what little bit we knew, we decided to try it. The Grove helped us come up with a business model for the co-working space and we started.
We rent the front of the second floor to Manchester Adult Education, because we needed a revenue stream when we took possession of the building. We stood the co-working space up in the back and then MCC was downstairs. So that’s how we all got here. That was three years ago. Axis901 has been here just over two years.
IDH: Describe your role as Axis901 staff members.
PELLEGRINI: Because we couldn’t afford to pay somebody to run the co-working space, it’s run by four town employees, including Heather and me. There’s Chris Silver, who is Director of the Office for Neighborhood and Families, and Rob Topliff, Recreation Supervisor. I am here because it was my idea, but the rest of the team volunteered.
IDH: How do people find out about the co-working space?
PELLEGRINI: When we opened we had a lot of events and open houses, but a lot of members are here through word of mouth.
IDH: What types of people use the space?
GUERETTE: It has been more tech-related in the past, but now it’s more of a mix.
PELLEGRINI: There’s a data security company, a mobile app designer, and some people who are trying to launch their own startup or web-based businesses. We have people who do web development and support, web design and graphic design. There are also freelancers. We have a couple of people who work for companies that do project management for other companies.
It leans toward the technical side, but we do have people from other sectors. We aren’t targeting a particular sector, we just want to let the community know we have space available.
IDH: Do you have to be a member to utilize the space at Axis901? What does a membership entail?
GUERETTE: There are a few different membership options, from purchasing a five-day punch card to renting a private office. We have part- and full-time membership options that give you limited hours per month or 24/7 access to the space.
We allow people to come in on a free day pass to test out the space, but otherwise, unless you’re meeting with a member, it’s for members only. People can rent out the conference rooms and they don’t have to be a member to do so. Our meeting room rates are very affordable, so many groups take advantage of this option.
PELLEGRINI: All memberships get access to free Wi-Fi. And our Wi-Fi is very robust because the town has its own fiber-optic network. A lot of the people here really like the fact that the internet is so fast. Members also have access to a printer, a scanner, a fax machine and a 3-D printer. We also have a conference phone, projector and two conference rooms.
IDH: And is the space only available to Manchester residents?
PELLEGRINI: No. It’s not just for Manchester.
People like that it’s easy to get here, the parking is free or inexpensive and you’ve got a good group of people here. It’s a nice setting, the amenities are good and its accessible to a lot of conveniences here on Main Street, including restaurants, banks and a hardware store.
IDH: Are people here working together?
PELLEGRINI: People do work together. We’ve had some people form businesses jointly.
GUERETTE: That’s the nice thing about having a varied group of people. If somebody needs a business card the graphic designer can link with them and maybe she needs website work. So there are barters. It’s been nice to see that collaboration happening organically.
IDH: How many members does Axis901 typically have at once?
PELLEGRINI: Our membership has fluctuated anywhere from 19 to 27 members.
One thing we realized is we all have other jobs and we can’t really dedicate the time that is necessary to grow membership and build community and plan and execute events. So we let groups such as HartfordAdobe group and the Greater Hartford Python Group use the space, but we don’t charge them. We have had people join Axis901 from coming to those events.
We want to raise our profile as a resource and as a location and we also want to increase our membership. We’re going to be engaging a firm to help us focus on community building, outreach and member recruitment—but mostly to get our message out there and strengthen our brand a little bit in the ecosystem.
GUERETTE: So hopefully you’ll be hearing even more about us soon.
IDH: What do you enjoy most about working with entrepreneurs and innovators?
GUERETTE: I’ve found it fascinating to watch the process, Tim Laubacher, our on-site mobile app developer especially. He’s amazing. Somebody will mention something and two days later he’s come up with a design for a new business.
So I enjoy not only seeing a mind that works that way, but seeing someone take a general idea and turn it into something. For instance, the mapping program for the town trails. Rob needed to update the Town’s paper trail maps. Tim then designed a mobile app to show our trails on a mobile device. Called MyTownTrails, Tim rolled it out to other municipalities. To see that kind of growth and see how that kind of idea becomes a business plan and then a business, that’s been very interesting to me.
PELLEGRINI: Those are some of the kinds of things that happen here. Whether or not things get monetized is up to the entrepreneurs.
For me, Axis901 is a little bit entrepreneurial. We kind of stepped off the curb trying to figure out how to run a co-working space. But we’re in the government, so there are a lot of processes and committees. We can’t just go and do things, whereas these startups and entrepreneurs just go and do things. It’s a good mix, sometimes we help them take a different view and sometimes they encourage us to try something and take a chance. That’s been personally good for me.
IDH: What is the best thing about setting up shop in a Greater Hartford suburb?
GUERETTE: In a more suburban location you actually have to extract people from their home business. Once you pull them out, it’s amazing to see how many entrepreneurs there are in this area. It’s a matter of finding out where they are. Once they get here, they realize others are doing something similar.
That has been interesting to me because I don’t know if I would have thought that there were so many entrepreneurial groups in the area. Even when we started, people were coming into the space and they were already aware of networking groups. I had no idea there were already so many facilities and groups in the Greater Hartford area.
IDH: Where do you see the future of co-working?
PELLEGRINI: You’ve got University of Connecticut, you’ve got us, the MetroHartford Alliance, reSET, The Grove, The Stamford Innovation Center, so it’s becoming more common. And the more we work, the more we find entrepreneurs and people with ideas and people who want to create startups.
A little bit of the focus has been on technology and looking for the next big thing. The other thing that we all sort of struggle with is than an entrepreneur could be somebody who wants to start a restaurant or a clothing business, anything. Anybody who’s kind of small, working for themselves, starting off for themselves, that’s a very big part of the whole economic scene.
I think with this latest effort you’re starting to see more and more people, you’re starting to realize how many people are out there doing it because they’re getting together now. So it kind of feels like things are leaning in the right direction in that way.
IDH: So it’s creating connections.
GUERETTE: Right, and as a “solopreneur” you’re then connected with more resources and then maybe there are ways for you to learn if this is the right direction to take in terms of starting a business—this is the path I need to take to get permits with the town or get licensing with the state. Now there are avenues that are coming up that are helping people do that, rather than having people do it on their own. There are resources and people have been through it. There are communities there to help guide you through the process.
PELLEGRINI: What might be a little bit different at Axis901 than some other places is that I think it’s unusual for a local government to be this directly involved in economic development—to say we’re going to own a building and we’re going to make a part of this building available as a co-working space. It shows a level of community and government support that you may not find elsewhere.
We always say that a lot of co-working spaces start with a community that is looking for a space and we started with a space that was looking for a community. We’re still doing that.