- Associated Press - Thursday, June 4, 2015

ASHEVILLE, N.C. (AP) - For 20 years, the off-white building on the east end of Haywood Road was a day care center known for its fence of crayon-shaped pillars.

Today the sun-faded posts of red, yellow, green and blue are gone, but there’s still a sense of childlike wonder happening inside the buildings at 285 and 295 Haywood Road - the site of Asheville’s newest coworking space.

Where children once played with blocks, entrepreneurs meet with clients and web developers write lines of code. The furniture doesn’t match and some rooms in the 6,000-square-foot center still need work, but this is Open Space AVL.

“I see this space as being a microcosm of what I envision for Asheville as a whole,” said Steve Cooperman, who is leading the charge to bring Open Space AVL to life in West Asheville. “I want this to be a place where people come together, whether on a permanent or temporary basis, to discover how we can live together, work together and learn together.”

The way people work together in the future could mean saying goodbye to the office cubicle and hello to coworking in places like Open Space AVL. In a coworking space, people rent desks and share an office alongside other self-employed individuals or people who may even work for someone else.

According to projections from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 40 percent of the nation’s workforce, or 65 million Americans, will be freelancers, temps, independent contractors or solopreneurs by 2020.

“More and more, people want to work in a place where they want to live,” said Diane Cherry, who studied the coworking trend in North Carolina and published her findings in a 2013 paper for the Institute for Emerging Issues at N.C. State. “If they don’t want to work for someone else, or if they can’t find a job where they want to live, coworking is a way that they can make a go of it on their own while having community support.”

While some of these nomadic workers will be content in a coffee shop or home office, coworking lets individuals like Ty Hallock work alone while interacting with others.

“When you roll out of bed in your pajamas and sit at your dining room table working at home, it doesn’t feel like you’re in a different space. You’re by yourself and all of the distractions of home life get in the way of actual work,” said Hallock, who is the chief technology officer at Trusted Sharing, an Asheville software startup. “There’s just something about actually going to a different space and being in a different environment where other people are being productive that can make such a difference.”

And Asheville is recognizing this need to keep work at work and home at home.

With the addition of Open Space AVL, Asheville now has two coworking spaces in the city limits with plans for a third that will open in November.

“There’s a real culture here of doing it yourself, but doing it together,” Cooperman said.

Coworking got its start a decade ago in San Francisco when a computer programmer named Brad Neuberg coined the phrase and started renting out office space at Spiral Muse.

Despite Asheville’s fiercely creative and entrepreneurial community, coworking didn’t really take root in Western North Carolina until 2011. That was when Craig McAnsh founded Mojo Coworking in a 1,700-square-foot space above Mayfel’s Restaurant.

It wasn’t that others didn’t try.

Before Mojo (as it is called in the local startup community), two others attempted to bring coworking to the Asheville area.

A local software developer named Lance Ball opened a coworking space on Broadway Street called Locomotivity in 2009. It closed a year later. Another coworking space called the Tink Tank closed in 2011, a year after its launch.

But when Mojo Coworking began on Wall Street in downtown Asheville, all of the 15 desks inside were spoken for when it opened. Interest grew quickly and Mojo moved into a 4,500-square foot space at 60 N. Market St. in 2012.

Sitting inside one of the offices available for rent at Mojo, Ian McAnsh remembers the early days of the business his father began. Since his father moved to New York, the 27-year-old community manager at Mojo is now at the helm.

“Asheville is the kind of place where a lot of people don’t just do one thing. They do three or four different things. When you’re doing so many different things, you don’t usually have an office you go to because you’re freelancing and working remotely,” Ian McAnsh said. “The reason people came here was the same reason why my dad started this: He didn’t want to meet people at coffee shops anymore.”

On average, 60-62 people are renting desk, office or conference room spaces at Mojo at any given time. But if April is any indication of what’s to come for coworking in Asheville, the trend won’t be fizzling out anytime soon.

“April was probably our busiest month ever. Every single office and every single desk upstairs was taken,” McAnsh said, estimating about 80-82 people were at Mojo in April. “Even now, we still have waiting lists for offices, and we have waiting lists for desks as well.”

This demand for coworking is also happening statewide.

At the time Cherry published her 2013 study on coworking, 16 coworking spaces were identified in North Carolina. Today, she knows of at least seven more that have opened.

Cherry points to millennials, defined by the Pew Research Center as those aged 18 to 34, as the major drivers.

“When we started this study back in 2010, it was the millennial generation that was graduating from college. They didn’t feel like they wanted to have to work for someone,” she said. “(Coworking) fits the idea that you can come and go, set your own hours and be with others that are like-minded.”

In downtown Asheville, the cost of office space does not come cheap for any entrepreneur - much less a young one.

Austin Walker, a commercial real estate broker with Whitney Commercial Real Estate Services, estimates downtown office space used be about $12-14 per square foot at the height of the recession.

“Now, that space is going for $18-20, and we’re even seeing $24-27 per square foot in new construction,” he said.

It was rising rental costs that drove Hallock and his software startup out of the Flat Iron Building in downtown Asheville and into Open Space AVL.

“The price jumped significantly, and for us, it was going to double,” Hallock said.

Instead of paying $400 to rent office space, Hallock now pays between $50-$100 a month to work at Open Space AVL. Mojo’s prices range from $50 a month to upwards of $1,850, depending on space size and lease duration.

And in Asheville no two coworking spaces are alike.

The clean, modern lines and open floor plan at Mojo do not resemble the communal space and project-in-process currently found at Open Space AVL.

Even the focus of the two places differs.

Mojo sees a range of members in its building, from lawyers to indie game companies. Open Space AVL wants to see its members having a specific focus on social and cultural impact.

The Collider, a public-private partnership that plans to be a cornerstone for collaboration on the topic of climate change, will open its coworking space in November.

Located on the top floor of the Wells Fargo building, the space will have room for more than 30 assigned and flexible desk rentals, six small offices and 20 “hot-spots” for drop-in and casual users. The Collider is now taking reservations and signing up members.

Robin Cape, project accelerator for The Collider, said coworking aligns with the ethos of the project.

“Climate doesn’t happen in a vacuum by itself,” Cape said. “We thought a coworking space would be a good way to offer and create a diverse ecosystem for people who are working in a similar field to collaborate and get to know each other.”

Though Cooperman says Open Space AVL is “still in beta mode,” the collaborative spirit inside the coworking space has been in full swing since it opened March 10.

On March 18, a meeting was held to discuss what kind of space Open Space AVL should be. Rather than architectural drawings, rooms have been planned with sticky notes on a hand-drawn floor plan.

The Asheville Tool Library can now be found here, and Cooperman said there are talks to bring Mojo’s public 3-D printer lab to Open Space AVL.

“Asheville is this unique place where there are a lot of people who are wanting to have a social impact and a cultural impact, but they don’t all necessarily show up in the same place,” Cooperman said. “This is an experiment, but people seem to resonate with it.”

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Information from: The Asheville Citizen-Times, http://www.citizen-times.com

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