Can growing numbers of local open work areas fuel tech innovation?

Studio IX developer James Barton says Virginia is poised to become the next great tech hot spot, and he’s hoping his newest venture, Vault Virginia, will contribute to the local innovation landscape. Photo: John Robinson Studio IX developer James Barton says Virginia is poised to become the next great tech hot spot, and he’s hoping his newest venture, Vault Virginia, will contribute to the local innovation landscape. Photo: John Robinson

The technology community is notoriously secretive, but there’s one thing Charlottesville techies can’t hide: The local innovation infrastructure is growing at a rapid pace, with two new co-working spaces set to open on the Downtown Mall this year.

Construction is expected to begin on the Charlottesville Technology Center, which will go on the former Main Street Arena land parcel, by the end of March. And Vault Virginia, which will occupy the former Bank of America building on the mall, will be full by the end of March, according to founder James Barton.

The new spaces will join established open work areas like Studio IX (also operated by Barton), HackCville, UVA’s i.Lab and OpenGrounds, Tinkersmiths, The Bridge Progressive Arts Initiative, the Old Michie Building, the Charlottesville Technology Incubator and Ten Flavors Studios.

“Charlottesville is really unusual in that, on a per capita basis, it has the seventh or eighth highest venture capital flows in the country,” says Tim Miano, who founded innovation infrastructure firm SP@CE in 2014. “Charlottesville swings above its weight class. …It’s why I moved here and started the project. There is this clear opportunity to develop a large-scale innovation hub.”

In addition to deep-pocketed investors, Miano points to UVA’s status as an innovation anchor, a “shockingly mature” biotechnology community and a high standard of living as reasons C’ville could become the next great tech hot spot in the mold of a Boulder, Colorado, or Chapel Hill, North Carolina. But the growth of the local innovation infrastructure hasn’t been without its bugs—shared workspace stalwart OpenSpace closed in mid-2014, and Miano says the city has “structural limitations” due to its population.

The crown jewel of the new local tech spaces is the Charlottesville Technology Center, an ambitious 140,000-square-foot office structure driven by development firm Taliaferro Junction and Jaffray Woodriff. Miano says SP@CE helped scout the project but isn’t currently involved.

Taliaferro purchased the building and land occupied by Main Street Arena for $5.7 million, according to a press release issued last year, and solicited proposals from architecture firms to design a “new building.” A spokesperson for Woodriff, who declined to be interviewed, said demolition would begin at the end of March. Former tenants of the building, including concert venue The Ante Room and restaurant Escafé, have confirmed March will be their last month in operation.

Barton says his Vault Virginia project is nearing launch, with several anchor tenants he declined to name slated to fill the third floor. He expects the second floor of the building to be next to fill, occupied by smaller firms and sole proprietors, followed by the first floor, which will feature common spaces and a restaurant.

Barton and Miano, who spoke in separate interviews, agree their projects are vastly different and shouldn’t compete for tenants. And the developers expect the spaces to work in concert with the more artisanal tech work areas around the city.

But what will be the effect of all this new tech-focused terrain? Andrew Montalenti, a Charlottesville resident and founder of New York-based internet traffic analyst, thinks such work areas can contribute significantly to the local innovation economy.

“There are kind of two groups in Charlottesville from a tech standpoint,” he says. “Those that are affiliated with local startups, and then people like me that are affiliated with another organization, remote digital nomads that happen to be based here. The co-working areas serve us, and the dedicated spaces serve the others.”

So why did OpenSpace close its doors, and how will the new spaces avoid the same fate? For one thing, it’s unclear a lack of profitability contributed to OpenSpace’s undoing. The company’s founder, Jeff Gunther, officially cites his own relocation as the reason for the business’ closure, and Barton suggests the concept may have been before its time.

Now, he thinks the time is right.

“A rising tide lifts all boats, and I believe that will be the story for Charlottesville,” Barton says. “I’m proud of the impact that Studio IX has had, and Vault Virginia will be another part of the infrastructure that supports progress and thoughtful development.”

Making room

Just how will the Charlottesville Technology Center’s 140,000 square feet be allocated? Here’s the breakdown by square footage.

60,000 Anchor tenant

40,000 Tech/venture

20,000 Smaller tenants and lab

10,000 Retail

10,000 Event/presentation/common area

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