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When Pat Whalen stands in the middle of an empty, 90-year-old industrial building in downtown Buffalo, he sees a piece of the city’s economic revival.

Whalen, who is chief operating officer of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, envisions a modern, communal space that provides telecommuters, freelancers and the self-employed a place to work without having to rent an office.

That arrangement, known as co-working, is meant to encourage collaboration, with chance encounters sparking potential business deals.

But the medical campus wants to take it further, by inviting business veterans to mentor members and by seeking out young people in underserved communities to spend time in the space at no initial cost.

It’s a way of nurturing innovation, of providing crucial, early-stage support to young people here who might have the Next Big Idea but don’t know how to get started. And it’s a way of proving Whalen’s idea that the answer to Buffalo’s economic woes has to come from within.

“We’ve got a mission, and the mission is to foster entrepreneurship and get companies started in Buffalo,” he said.

Co-working and alternative workspaces have taken off in big cities, nationally and internationally, where members pay hundreds of dollars per month for access to a chair and desk, Wi-Fi and caffeinated beverages.

It’s cheaper than renting office space, plus it gets a telecommuter away from the isolation of home and it feels more professional than working out of a coffee shop.

Buffalo is catching up, with CoworkBuffalo – which goes into great detail on its website about the coffee and food truck options – open for nearly two years. Another experiment lasted just one year.

Now “dig” – short for “design innovation garage” – is scheduled to open March 24 in the medical campus’ Innovation Center, and has the backing of established companies and organizations that want to feed off its intellectual energy.

“If nothing else, I may find a new business,” said Fred Saia, a founder of the Charter School of Applied Technologies and owner of Oneida Concrete, who will volunteer at the center.

A relief from home

There may not be anyone in Buffalo who has spent more time in more co-working spaces than Whalen. A longtime business owner who sold his Fulfillment Systems International to UPS in 2000, Whalen has traveled extensively for the campus.

He began exploring co-working spaces found on, or near, research centers, and now makes a point of Googling “co-working space” wherever he goes. Whalen figures he’s visited 50 such spaces in seven countries.

There were an estimated 109,000 people working in 2,490 co-working spaces around the world – including 781 spaces in the United States – last year, according to Deskmag, the online co-working magazine. That’s an 83 percent increase in spaces over the previous year.

Co-working sites can be utilitarian. You don’t need much more than room to sit down and set up a laptop, wireless Internet, space where cellphone calls and Skype sessions can be conducted without disrupting everyone else, climate control, snacks and coffee; and a sense of camaraderie among members.

Co-working serves people who work for an out-of-town company, work for themselves or for whatever reason don’t have an office to go to each day.

They may work from home but feel a little disconnected from other people and distracted by household tasks. They may set up at a coffee shop to get human interaction, but that’s not a business-oriented environment. “You can’t go into Starbucks and tap everyone on the shoulder and say, ‘Are you a photographer? Are you a copywriter?’ So in here, actually, that’s encouraged,” Whalen said.

Bungee cord walls

Campus officials last year decided to go forward with the co-working center in space that had been earmarked as the temporary home for Albany Molecular Research Inc. and PerkinElmer, two drug-discovery companies that instead found space in the Jacobs Institute.

Dig’s Ellicott Street home was originally built in 1923 and predates the Trico complex that grew up around it, Whalen said. A former loading dock, it was used most recently by Chakra Communications before the firm moved to Lancaster.

Construction crews have been working on the space since late January, knocking down walls to create one large room, with a soaring ceiling, and replacing the covered-up skylight windows.

A team from the University at Buffalo, led by Omar Khan, chair of the architecture department, designed the space.

Khan said they solved the challenge of creating a few distinct work areas without breaking up the room with walls or cubicles by using rows of yellow bungee cords stretching from floor to ceiling.

“We thought it had to be transparent somehow,” Khan said. He also sought an energizing “hubbub” – not too loud or too quiet – and a layout that encourages members to circulate. Trautman Associates served as executive architect on the project.

The co-working project, budgeted at $173,000, is likely to cost about $200,000 by the time it’s finished this month. The campus is diverting cash flow from its other properties to pay for the work.

Wandering mentors

One unusual feature in dig is a large blackboard divided into days of the week and hours of the day. Volunteer mentors will sign up for weekly “office hours,” offering feedback to people thinking about starting their own businesses. Called “mechanics” by Whalen, they will include business owners, lawyers, accountants and other experts.

“That’s about what it is, just us wandering around and offering advice to these guys and maybe keeping something in Buffalo,” Saia said.

Whalen said he hopes that dig members who think they are ready to take their business idea to the next level will graduate to renting space in the Innovation Center’s incubator. Prospective members must apply for dig, but Whalen said the screening process is far from stringent.

Wynne Creative Group, the advertising agency that has offices in the Innovation Center, was looking for extra room for two new employees and plans to have them work in dig, said Rob Wynne, the firm’s president.

And David Macro, a senior account executive for Millington Lockwood, also plans to join dig, even though the seller of office furniture has a large showroom near the Buffalo Niagara International Airport. Macro wants to interact with the next generation of furniture buyers, who don’t necessarily conduct business in a standard office.

“We want to catch the energy of these people, and we want to better understand how they work,” he said.

The standard monthly cost of a dig membership will be $200, with weekly and daily rates available. The medical campus will charge $100 per month for anyone who signs up in 2014 because several amenities – including a café and an indoor-outdoor patio – won’t be finished until later this year.

Memberships kick in April 1, but anyone who signs up gets free access the week of March 24.

And dig plans to offer the first three months free to young people who have promising ideas, and would benefit from mentoring, but can’t afford the fees.

Whalen said he’ll work with organizations that serve inner-city neighborhoods, because he wants to make sure dig’s programs reach a diverse pool of prospective entrepreneurs.

Other Buffalo sites

The co-working concept has had mixed success here so far.

CoworkBuffalo opened in May 2012 in office space above the downtown Spot Coffee.

They moved to 653 Main St. in November, said Nick Quaranto, a CoworkBuffalo co-founder and programmer for the website Basecamp, based in Chicago. It’s largely a “do-it-yourself” operation, though they raised $6,000 in a Kickstarter campaign last month, and the founders have worked to build a sense of community there among freelancers and tech workers.

CoworkBuffalo has 20 to 25 regulars, with a membership costing $125 per month, said Quaranto, who welcomes dig to town. “I’m just happy that we’ve proven this concept works in Buffalo, and it’s sustainable,” he said.

Another co-working site, which took up about 2,000 square feet on one floor of the Main Washington Exchange building, lasted about one year.

Roger Trettel, the building’s owner, said it was hard to find members for the space, and collecting fees was a challenge, making it an experiment ahead of its time. “I hope they have better luck,” Trettel said of dig.

Whalen is confident about the success of dig, which also will host events. Matt Wolfe, general manager for the Tri-Main Center, stopped by dig the other day for a tour.

Wolfe said his center is contacted regularly by people who want to rent a small amount of space. If the Tri-Main Center goes through with a co-working space, the center and dig might offer joint memberships.

Whalen doesn’t want dig to compete with, or detract from, other co-working spaces. “The more we can educate the Buffalo population about the benefits of co-working space, the more it helps all of us,” Whalen said.

email: swatson@buffnews.com