Startups sizing up Aurora’s office space

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Visions of trendy young professionals coding the next Uber or WhatsApp have become a staple of modest professional hives in Denver over the past decade, but the same Silicon Valley-scented sentiment is largely still a pipe dream for the capital city’s eastern neighbor.

“We do have (shared work space) sprinkled throughout Aurora, but could we use more? Absolutely — especially now that the economy is better,” said Chuck Hahn, small business specialist at the Aurora Small Business Development Center.

Aurora’s supply of shared office spaces is not up to snuff, according to some local business leaders and city officials, some of whom want to see the city leverage its vacant storefronts and competitive rents to woo enterprising impresarios.

People work together at Battery 621, a shared workspace in Denver on Wednesday. Aurora city officials toured Battery 621 last year in an effort to explore examples of shared work spaces in Denver. (Photo by Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel)
People work together at Battery 621, a shared workspace in Denver on Wednesday. Aurora city officials toured Battery 621 last year in an effort to explore examples of shared work spaces in Denver. (Photo by Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel)

“Denver’s embracing it and Aurora doesn’t seem to have a handle on that stuff,” said Doug Adams of Cornerstone Equity in north Aurora. “Denver nearly has a shared work space coming on once a month, and all of those guys are startups and new businesses. Does Aurora have any? No.”

Co-working spots like Battery 621 off of Sixth Avenue and the Laundry on Lawrence Street in Denver have grown into paradigms for how to retrofit decaying facades into bustling hubs for cash-strapped millennials.

“We just needed a home for our business and we wanted to be surrounded by creative, like-minded companies and the energy that comes from those random collisions, so it was really about a bigger collective energy,” said Mike Arzt, co-owner of Battery 621 and one of the facility’s founding tenants, project management firm The Public Works. “People are trying to make better spaces, not just the white, empty 3,000-sqaure-foot room any more.”

The Denver consulting firm Denver Shared Spaces reported supporting 28 co-working spots for more than 350 nonprofits over the past four years.

But even given a relatively healthy supply of available commercial real estate in north Aurora, entrepreneurs in the city aren’t afforded much in terms of small, down-market space — much to the chagrin of developers like Adams.

Adams and his team at Cornerstone were behind an effort late last year to get the city to invest in converting the old Broyhilll Furniture building between Fulton and North Galena Streets on East Colfax Avenue into a shared workspace. The building has since been purchased and is currently being converted into Afrikmall, an African-themed retail center expected to open later this year.

Adams toured several Denver outposts with city planners and specialists, but was eventually told that the city wouldn’t be able to pursue the project.

“As a developer in Original Aurora, we would lead the battle, but the city has to come to the table, too, because right now it’s not economically feasible for a developer to do that alone,” Adams said. “If the city wants to be in touch with what’s happening in the world right now, shared space is what’s happening. The city always wants to go for established businesses, but there’s a real growth with entrepreneurs out there and Denver’s enticing them.”

People are trying to make better spaces, not just the white, empty 3,000-square-foot room any more.”

Andrea Amonick, manager of the city’s Development Services Division, said the city was in fact interested and willing to renovate the Broyhill building, but that the private-sector developers it was in talks with were unable to come up with adequate financing. She emphasized the need for any future city-financed shared work spaces to be a partnership between the municipal and private sectors.

“It’s generally a private sector thing, but one we’re extremely happy to participate in because they’re neat projects, especially in the northwest section of Aurora,” she said. “We’re always interested in endeavors that promote jobs, but we need private sector investment — it has to be a partnership.”

Amonick added that there is expected to be some shared space in Stanley Marketplace, the 100,000-square-foot bazaar set to open on Dallas Street in north Aurora later this year.

Definitions of what exactly constitutes the shared office space developers like Adams crave can be slippery, and boxing in a business incubator to a single meaning can be equally as challenging. But the bedrock for both concepts is essentially to give an entrepreneur the ability to cheaply and often times temporarily operate a business.

“It’s halfway between having a home-based business and a full office,” Hahn said.

Hahn pointed to Office Evolution in the Southlands Mall as an example of one such shared space in Aurora. Founded in 2003, the co-working facility offers space packages for varying lengths of time. Offerings range from renting an executive suite for $575 per month, to joining a virtual office space for about $80 each month, to daily rates that charge $15 an hour. Hahn also referenced the incubator on the Fitzsimons Innovation Campus as an example of an Aurora shared space, although he acknowledged that it is highly specific to scientific ventures. He said that the incubation model is unique because it often involves a membership structure apart form rent, and that profit sharing mechanisms often come into play.

“As a business matures and starts to be profitable, they pay more (to the facility) and then they grow out of the incubator,” he said. “Like chicks, you grow them then let them go.”

Apart from the slightly more traditional examples of shared space in Aurora, there are two, relatively new city facilities that mark a step forward in terms of cohabitated, nearly free space for Aurorans.

Both the Aurora Welcome Center on Peoria Street and East 11th Avenue and the Dayton Opportunity Center at 1445 Dayton St. are in the process of carving out business space and resources for a demographic that is often hard pressed to find such offerings.

After opening in December of last year, The Welcome Center has acted as a shared space for organizations that directly benefit Aurora’s burgeoning refugee and immigrant populations. The center currently houses about seven small businesses, with room for only one or two more. Rates range from $80 a month to rent out a single desk in the facility to $3 per square foot for a full office.

“We do have (shared work space) sprinkled throughout Aurora, but could we use more? Absolutely — especially now that the economy is better,” said Chuck Hahn, small business specialist at the Aurora Small Business Development Center.

Mike Arzt
Co-owner of co-working space Battery 621 on Sixth Avenue

“Most of the shared spaces that are in Denver are shared spaces that have a theme, so our theme is immigrants and refugees,” said Diana Higuera, executive director of the Aurora Welcome Center. “So if someone is just an unaffiliated start-up, that wouldn’t work for us, and we wouldn’t have an opportunity to work with them — we don’t want to duplicate services, we want to collaborate for immigrants and refugees.”

More than 2,200 refugees and asylees moved to Colorado in 2014, according to the Colorado Department of Human Services.

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