SALT LAKE CITY — While coworking spaces have exploded along the Wasatch Front in recent years, rural Utah has been mostly left out of the mix on the new, flexible office space opportunities that are often equated with tech startups and outboard employment known as "remoting."
But a proposal that won the unanimous support of a Utah legislative committee this week and passed onto the House's third reading calendar Wednesday is aiming to kickstart interest in the concept for cities and towns off the I-15 corridor via a new $2 million grant program.
Rep. Carl Albrecht, R-Richfield, said his HB296 complements other recent state programs aiming to give rural Utah communities, which have lagged well behind the Wasatch Front in economic successes, a "shot in the arm."
"Once we get people trained, and get employers interested with the (Rural Economic Development Initiative) program, then the third portion, of course, is a place for them to get together and work as a team," Albrecht said. "And, that's this bill."
Abby Osborne, vice president of public policy and government relations for the Salt Lake Chamber, told the House Economic Development and Workforce Services Committee Tuesday that Albrecht's proposal would help address one of the most daunting obstacles for businesses considering rural Utah communities for investment.
"One of the big things we see as an impediment to businesses growing, expanding or relocating to rural Utah is infrastructure," Osborne said. "That actual building space. A lot of times it takes 16 to 24 months (to develop a new workspace) if a company is interested in relocating to rural Utah."
Salt Lake City's Impact Hub was among the first coworking efforts in Utah and has been operating for about 5 1/2 years. The five-story downtown location includes a variety of flexible spaces including private offices, individual and group work areas, shared conference rooms and larger gathering spaces that can accommodate events.
Impact Hub Director Heidi Gress said the effort is connected to a global network of similar hubs and, unlike many other coworking operations, has embraced a committment to positive social impacts and caters to businesses and individuals that are engaged in mission-driven efforts with a social good component. Gress noted coworking spaces up and down the I-15 corridor have proliferated over the past few years with a variety of operators catering to different clientele.
On Tuesday, Kirsten Johanna Allen, publisher and executive director of Torrey House Press, a nonprofit publisher that specializes in "conservation through literature in the West," was working with her team in a cozy corner of the Impact Hub space. Allen said her operation, which publishes eight to 12 titles a year and hosts numerous public events around the state, is mostly based in Salt Lake City, but Torrey is a secondary work hub for the company. She was pleased to hear of the state's consideration of incentivizing coworking space development in rural Utah and views it as a positive effort that would likely find support in the smaller communities.
"Torrey and Teasdale are interesting parts of Wayne County where lots of people are coming to investigate and participate in what I think of as the new economy, not extraction-based but information-based," Allen said. "And there are a lot of people who would like to relocate out of the more expensive Salt Lake City and Wasatch Front areas and be able to make a go of it elsewhere in our state.
"For us, having an accessible and compatible coworking space in Wayne County would allow us to do more workshops and events in the area."
Access to coworking space has helped drive the success of V School, a coding school founded in Provo in 2013 that has been operating in Salt Lake City, at the Impact Hub space, for most of its existence. Mo Reeder, V School co-founder and chief marketing officer, said he and fellow co-founder and V School CEO Michael Zaro found a kindred energy in the purpose-driven mission of Impact Hub.
"We wanted to choose a partner that essentially had the same ideals and same social goals that we did," Reeder said. "And we found that at the Impact Hub."
Besides the copacetic operating ethos, Impact Hub's flexible offerings have accommodated V School's growth from a one-room operation to its current space needs, occupying the entire fifth floor of the building. Reeder said the school draws interest from around the country, and the world, but about half of its students coming from Utah communities. V School has committed to working with displaced peoples, recently completing a remote coding camp for Syrian refugees, and is one of the few coding institutions that have been approved for funding for veteran students via the GI Bill.
Reeder said the school also has a unique partnership with Adobe, via the tech giant's Digital Academy program. The Adobe scholarship program was created to foster diversity in the company's workforce through creating opportunities for nontraditional students to acquire digital workplace skills and potentially connect with Adobe employment opportunities.1 comment on this story
Reeder said legislators were making a wise move in recognizing how coworking space could help add to employment and economic opportunities for rural residents.
"I think it's a brilliant idea," Reeder said. "For people like V School graduates, anywhere you have a hotspot you can do the work of a technologist.
"There are a lot of smart people who live in these smaller communities and coworking space could help accelerate their success. Working in close proximity with other people, collaborating on projects creates synergy and opportunities for all involved to grow their businesses."