Co-working welcomed with open arms in NW Michigan

A new class of alternative workspace has crashed full-force into the mainstream.

No, it’s not a desk tucked into a solitary spare room at home.  It’s not the corner of a public library, and - no, no, no – it’s not a couch in a coffee shop hawking vanilla spiced lattes at $6 bucks a pop.

Those venues, the ones that have long lured solo entrepreneurs, creative types--and tiny start-ups with tiny budgets--are beginning to nosedive from their workspace sector niche, giving way to real, affordable offices that casual professionals share.

The model of shared workspace is sprawling from large cities into smaller areas. Like Traverse City.
The city is home to CoWharf  and SPACE--two expansive, airy vocational places where a multitude of  people gather to work – by the month, the week or even for the day, according to Bradley Matson, co-founder (with wife Kirsten) of CoWharf and SPACE owner Nate Elkins.  

“It’s a shared space geared toward like-minded thinkers who are nomadic by nature,” Elkins said, of his 2,300-square foot multi-station space. “On any given day, we have from eight to 12 people working here.”

Architects, graphic designers, journalists, photographers and urban planners are among the types of folks who bring their work to SPACE, where they can drop in to rent a desk for a reasonable daily or weekly rate, or to join the casual shared environment with a full membership fee of $300 a month.

“You can’t get an office on Front Street for anywhere near $300 a month,” Elkins said, of the prime location where both SPACE and CoWharf are situated. “This is the most expensive real estate in the city.”

Music fills the air all day long at SPACE, members and attendees can rent conference rooms for events and private conversations, and pets are welcome on weekends.

“Saturdays are ‘bring your dog to work days’” Elkins said. “Coworking isn’t for everyone. But even though the people who work here are very different, they get to know each other well enough to bounce ideas around before giving a presentation or sharing their projects with others.”

They value each other’s input. They become friends.”

Family nights with pizza and Friday morning coffee talk sessions are just some of the elements that make SPACE a fun, relaxed place to conduct business, according to its owner.

“It’s the same as a regular office,” Elkins said. “Except for the fact that everyone is doing different things.”

Civic and nonprofit organizations, board members of all types, local businesses, faith-based and charity groups (and other non-member groups and individuals) rent conference rooms; they come together at both CoWharf and SPACE for corporate mixers, networking events and even art openings and private parties, according to Nate Elkins and Bradley Matson, who don’t consider each other competitors, but have built a collaborative working relationship.

Matson opened the 15-desk CoWharf last December after working for several years in an Arizona shared space.

“I moved to Tucson to work for a small tech start-up,” he said. “We rented a shared space, and I loved that. But, after a few years, my wife and I really missed Michigan. We worked remotely for the same company when we came back here, but after being in an open, shared environment for so long, I didn’t like freelancing at home in isolation.”

And so, CoWharf was born.

“Employment environments have changed so much over the past five years – for a lot of people, work is done solely online,” Matson said. “So they can work and live anywhere they want now, and Traverse City is a pretty nice place to live.”

People who would normally work from home come to CoWharf to escape solitude, to re-join the camaraderie of an office--and to find an affordable solution to their craving of a sense of community.

CoWharf workers blow off steam playing ping pong and play with children’s toys during downtime.

No, Really.

“I bought a set of Legos™ for the kids who come to work now and then,” Matson said. “But for some reason, their parents sometimes use them to brainstorm.”

Matson’s full members pay $250 a month for what he feels is not only beneficial to professionals who fulfill a need to divvy space with non-traditional co-workers, but for Traverse City in general.

“There is a demand for coworking services,” Matson said. “They are really community assets in an evolving economy.”

Elkins agreed, saying that the concept first became prevalent on the West Coast and in metropolitan areas before moving into Traverse City and other smaller areas.

“This all started in cities like Chicago for people who don’t work traditionally. We bring freelancers - mostly in their 20s, 30s and 40s--out of their homes and into the community, Elkins said, referring to both SPACE and CoWharf.   

“We are real business incubators.”

Kelle Barr is a Portage freelancer who occasionally feels the walls closing in while writing from a silent home office, but, with the company of her sleepy boxer, Rocky, manages to survive the solitude. She can be reached at
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