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Thinking Outside the Cubicle in Downtown Ithaca

By Evan D. Williams

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On the opening track of his 1977 debut album, Elvis Costello sang, “Welcome to the working week. Oh, I know it don’t thrill you, I hope it don’t kill you.” Back then, there were very few opportunities for creative types to break out of the 9-to-5 grind; Costello himself hung onto his day job as a data-entry clerk until his record company offered to match his salary. 

 

Today, experts are predicting the demise of the workweek as we have known it and are heralding in a new era: “Welcome to the gig economy.”

 

A 2014 study conducted by Edelman Berland, a global market-research firm, found that more than one-third of American workers are now freelancers, and that nearly 8 in 10 are making the same or more money than they did at their old jobs. A recent Forbes article reported that half of all millennials would choose increased flexibility over increased pay, and that most plan to leave their companies within three years. Furthermore, a mounting body of scientific research in the fields of psychology, neurology, and organizational behavior has demonstrated the inefficiencies of the continuous eight-hour workday — a holdover from the Industrial Revolution — and even traditional bricks-and-mortar employers are taking note.

 

These fundamental shifts in how we view work are also physically reshaping our workplaces. Since 2005, when Brad Neuberg organized the country’s first shared open office space in San Francisco, we’ve seen a tremendous proliferation of coworking spaces, maker spaces, business incubators, and other flexible, low-barrier options for the nation’s growing legions of contractors, inventors, and entrepreneurs. And now, this evolution can be witnessed not only in major metropolises, but also in smaller nodes of smart urban growth like downtown Ithaca.

 

Located above a popular café in the middle of the Ithaca Commons outdoor pedestrian mall, CoLab Hive is a coworking space with a mission to “change the paradigm of the way we live, work, and exchange goods and services with each other here and around the globe.” The facility features permanent and part-time desks available for lease on a monthly or yearly basis, plus a shared conference room, printer, scanner, and projector, and high-speed fiber optic Wi-Fi throughout. With monthly fees starting at $150, CoLab Hive even gives its members credits for massages at an adjoining body work studio.

 

Anna Coogan, an international touring singer-songwriter, uses CoLab Hive as a part-time office to book her shows. “I love working here for a few reasons. For one, it’s in a super-cool historic building right on the Commons — walking distance from where I live. I can take breaks to get coffee and wander around a little. When I was new to town, it got me out of the house and into a creative place where I could focus and also meet some interesting coworkers. One of the other member companies ended up building my killer website.”

 

Just a block away, STREAM Collaborative is a shared space specifically geared towards independent design professionals. With both open workstations and a private office available by reservation, the space also offers dedicated pin-up space for illustrations and renderings and access to a library well-stocked with resources for architects, engineers, illustrators, and planners. In addition to their shared workspace, STREAM also includes a 400-square-foot suite with room for up to four full-time workstations. This private suite is adjacent to their main space and allows for workers to furnish and personalize their individual spaces.

 

Scott Whitham, a planning, project design, and management professional, is a co-founder of STREAM Collaborative. “Working in a colab has changed the professional lives of many of us who have single-person or small-staff businesses. We have the ability to invite clients back to a well-appointed conference room and to share resources that would have been out of the reach of any of us as individuals. The ability for me to use other lab-mates as resources, both formally and informally, has expanded the services I am able to offer my clients. We are separate companies but we function in many ways as a single office.”

 

Rev Ithaca Startup Works is the third and newest coworking space within the compact, walkable urban core of Ithaca. Unlike CoLab Hive and STREAM, Rev is formally a business incubator, offering entrepreneurs not just shared workspace but also access to expert advice on business development. Members and “graduates” of the incubator may also be eligible for state tax incentives. With support from New York State government, Cornell University, Ithaca College, and Tompkins Cortland Community College, Rev will double in size as the historic building undergoes a $3.5 million renovation. That’s expected to be completed by December 2015.

 

Tom Schryver, a successful startup founder, chartered financial analyst, and independent consultant, is the current executive director of the Center for Regional Economic Advancement at Cornell. “Rev’s objective is to serve as an epicenter for the entrepreneurial community in Ithaca and beyond. We intentionally sited Rev in the heart of downtown because of the importance of being tightly linked with the downtown business community. Rev members work with nearby law firms, accountants, marketers, and designers. We want to create a virtuous cycle of businesses starting, growing, and staying downtown,” he says.

 

But what if your entrepreneurial aspirations require more than a desk and a Wi-Fi connection — what if you need access to high-tech and industrial equipment like 3D printers, laser cutters, and radial arm saws? Enter the maker space, like Ithaca Generator in downtown Ithaca’s Press Bay Alley. Ithaca Generator provides these and many more specialized tools to both experienced and novice inventors, artists, and engineers. Members can reserve workshop times or pay a surcharge for 24/7 key-holder status. A 501 (c)(3) nonprofit, it also offers low-cost classes like advanced lego robotics programming and “welding in a day” to underserved populations in the community. 

 

Xanthe Matychak is a designer and educator working at the intersection of creativity, sustainability, and technology, and serves on the board of Ithaca Generator. “Our suite of traditional and ‘desktop manufacturing’ tools allows almost anyone to come up with an idea and actually make it. We have a democratization of technology that presents us with an opportunity to harness the creativity and intelligence that lives in every corner of our community. We foster diversity of participation and we believe that all of the collaborative workspaces in downtown Ithaca have that aim as well,” Matychak says.

 

Whether or not the traditional 9-to-5 office is truly headed for extinction as quickly as some are predicting, it’s clear that alternative workplaces like these are not a passing fad, but instead an economic force with which to be reckoned. “It’s a natural evolution,” says Sande Golgart, senior VP, corporate accounts at The Regus Group, one of the largest providers of alternative office space in the world. “It’s a blend of technology and people getting smarter about getting efficient use out of their space. They find it inspiring, they find it more cost-effective, and they find they’re able to be very productive in that environment.”

 

Gary Ferguson, a seasoned economic-development professional and the executive director of the Downtown Ithaca Alliance, the city’s business-improvement district, would tend to agree. “Downtowns are where innovation and entrepreneurship intersect. Here in downtown Ithaca, we have not only a high concentration of retail, entertainment, dining, and traditional office businesses, but [also] a growing, dynamic sector of alternative workspaces that can take advantage of this density and vibrancy. We are very excited to see this trend continue.”        

 

Evan D. Williams is the office manager at the Downtown Ithaca Alliance (DIA). He is the day-to-day point person for the DIA and contributes to a variety of research projects. An Ithaca native, he is a graduate of Ithaca College and New York University and has worked and volunteered at a number of downtown organizations. Contact him at info@downtownithaca.com

 

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