WINDSOR, Vt. — At its peak during World War II, the Cone Automatic Machine Co. employed 2,400 people around the clock, workers on the factory floor hunched over lathes grinding metal or clerks in adjacent offices handling paperwork.
But since the machine tool company, later known as Cone-Blanchard, closed in 2002, the once-bustling factory complex in downtown Windsor has been a ghost town. The cavernous plant building with 40-foot-tall ceilings today is a warehouse containing some 300 cars, trucks, campers, trailer homes and boats.
“It’s the storage piece that has kept this place alive for 20 years,” said Jessica Corliss, the leasing manager for what is now called Windsor Technology Park.
The former factory is flanked by two red brick office buildings where the company’s engineers and executives once worked. Except for the startup Seldon Technologies occupying one of the two side buildings before it abruptly shut down four years ago, the structures have been mostly vacant.
“When I came on board here 18 months ago, I saw we had all this office space and we needed to figure out a way to get people in here,” Corliss said of the two office buildings. “I used to work as a purchasing manager from home and I knew how hard it was to find inexpensive workspace locally.”
Call it new wine in old bottles for the thousands of square feet of empty and underutilized space in old factories, retail stores and office buildings scattered throughout the Upper Valley that are silent monuments — but little more — to a long-vanished industrial economy.
That’s why Alan Cummings and Hunter Banbury, Windsor Technology Park’s owners, tasked Corliss with converting the vacant first floor of the old Cone-Blanchard executive building into “coworking” space in hopes of drawing people who need a place to bring their laptop for a day, a week or a month while they work on their business project or entrepreneurial dream.
“We think our facility is the key to Windsor’s turnaround,” Cummings said hopefully.
Cummings, whose father and grandfather both had worked at Cone-Blanchard, led Seldon Technologies for a decade, from its founding in 2002 until he stepped down in 2012.
River Valley Community College thinks it also has the key to unlock one of those monuments.
The Claremont-based school is studying how to make a business incubator and coworking space out of the onetime Woolworth’s store and former Lebanon College building in downtown Lebanon.
The goal is to provide students and users with the digital tools, access to professionals and mentoring expertise they need to launch their own business.
The first floor of the building on the Lebanon Mall will remain dedicated to students studying massage therapy — one of River Valley’s most popular programs — but the second floor is vacant.
“We have a lot of space that needs to be re-envisioned to sustain relevancy for the building,” said Josh Lamoureux, associate vice president of workforce development at RVCC. “We want this to be a place in the community where you go to think of a startup or even how to monetize a hobby on the side.”
When it comes to buzzwords in business, coworking space is the new synergy.
Pioneered in tech hubs like Silicon Valley and Cambridge, Mass., where offices are hard to come by and rents are high, the concept has arrived in the Upper Valley as commercial landlords search for ways to monetize space that has been vacant or in which finding long-term tenants has proven difficult.
Inspired by storied technology startups that begin as an idea on someone’s laptop and the gig and side hustle economy run off an iPhone, co-working spaces are promoted as a way for solo business people and aspiring entrepreneurs to cheaply access temporary or short-term office space with the added benefit of connecting and socializing with like-minded individuals.
Common accouterments of co-working spaces include desks or workstations, conference rooms, high-speed internet, a printer and a coffee machine with coffee pods on the house. Payment plans vary depending on level of access — open desk area or private office — and length of time — from daily to weekly, monthly or six months — but can range on the low end from $35 per day at Space on Main in Bradford, Vt., to $675 per month for a private office at OnTrack.Space in White River Junction.
They run the spectrum from dorm room-size offices such as River City CoWorks — formerly White River CoWorks — in White River Junction that are more short-term office rentals to places such as The Arnold Block in Bethel or Space on Main that aim for a social community where users can help each other brainstorm ideas or troubleshoot problems.
Other coworking spaces in the Upper Valley include The Schoolhouse in West Woodstock, opened in 2017 by Woodstock builder and architect George Helmer and Randolph Co-Worker, opened in 2018 by Randolph real estate developer and former Three Stallion Inn owner Sam Sammis.
At the top of the line is the Black River Innovation Campus in Springfield, Vt., a multimillion-dollar nonprofit project that officially opened last week in the former Park Street School building. With support from the Springfield Regional Development Corp. and former state Sen. Matt Dunne’s Center on Rural Innovation in Hartland, BRIC is designed to attract investment-grade tech startups to revitalize the former factory town’s economy.
Also at the upper end of the market is OnTrack.Space on the second floor of 15 Railroad Row in White River Junction, which opened in June and where all 11 private offices are already full on six-month commitments and 80% of the 30 designated work spaces are booked on a monthly basis.
“Office space is a big financial burden for a small company or single person to take on,” said David McManus, community manager of OnTrack.Space. When Subtext Media, the creator of online news platform DailyUV — now called HereCast — vacated the second-floor offices for another location in White River Junction, building principal Bill Bittinger was looking for a way to “repurpose” the space.
Initially, Bittinger had considered opening a coworking space on the ground floor of the new apartment complex at Bridge and Main streets,where he is also a principal, but pivoted to retail shops instead.
OnTrack.Space also decided to eschew offering hourly or weekly access, as is common among coworking spaces in urban areas, because the market isn’t large enough to support it, McManus said.
For Lindsay McClure Miller, who runs an educational company with her husband and is away for six months of the year visiting schools in the U.S. and abroad, the dedicated workstation at OnTrack.Space meets her need for flexibility and social connection that plays into her work.
“As an extrovert, I’m much more focused and twice as efficient when people are around me than when I was trying to hodgepodge it in libraries, a cafe or alone at home,” she said.
If Miller and her husband need to meet with clients, she books one of the conference rooms online.
Monique Priestley, who opened The Space on Main 13 months ago in the former Hill’s 5 & 10 store on Bradford’s Main Street, said that contrary to the assumption that an open coworking environment would be distracting to the people who work there, she has found that the opposite is often the case. She said The Space on Main has about 20 members on the monthly pass and about a dozen people show up on any given day.
A common reason people pay $100 for a monthly pass to The Space on Main is “to have a community of other people to work besides,” Priestley said.
But another reason is “to have others to hold them accountable.
“It can be motivating when you’re asked, ‘So, how’s your projecting going?’” she said.
Brynn Cole, who works remotely for Veterans Affairs, said she goes to Space on Main “at least” three to four times a week when she’s not traveling for work and appreciates the town square aspect — community meetings, local vendor pop-ups, art shows, members-only events and happy hours — for which the space has become known.
At the same time, she’s noticed that the coworking space “really helps with workday boundaries.”
“I find that I’m much more likely to close my laptop at a reasonable quitting time — and not open it back up — when I’m at the Space versus when I’m at home, when work bleeds into the before-and-after hours much more readily,” she said via email.
Back in Lebanon, River Valley’s Lamoureux stressed the down-to-earth goals.
River Valley is getting advice from the Dartmouth Regional Technology Center incubator at Centerra Office Park in Lebanon and the Grafton Regional Development Corp. for its feasibility study to evaluate how to convert the old Woolworth’s/Lebanon College building into what Lamoureux calls an “entrepreneurship/innovation/coworking center.”
The project, which Lamoureux expects would cost “a couple hundred thousand” dollars, is meant to serve River Valley’s mission in workforce education and development for the region as opposed to moonshot tech ventures — that is, to supply the tools for the digital equivalent of the Cone-Blanchard lathe worker.
“DRTC does shiny-object entrepreneurship,” Lamoureux said. “We’re not going to do biotech. We’re going to do website design.”