From pop-up markets to choir practices, Ypsi co-working space supports community during pandemic

This story is part of a series about Washtenaw County businesses' response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Support for this series is provided by Ann Arbor SPARK

A crisis can also be an opportunity. That's the philosophy the founders of Ypsilanti co-working space The Back Office Studio (BOS) have relied on during the COVID-19 pandemic, as they've opened their space for everything from pop-up markets to learning pods to choir practice.

BOS shut down completely for about 12 weeks at the start of the pandemic, and then reopened with some restrictions. Staff took the opportunity to rethink what kind of people might want to use the co-working space and to launch a series of outdoor pop-up markets and virtual workshops for local small businesses, among other changes.

"Those pop-up markets really started with trying to continue to have BOS be a space for the community," says BOS Community Manager John Newman. "With the city closing the street, it  was an opportunity to use our outdoor space. The pop-up markets don't directly benefit our business, but it's a way to keep customers coming downtown and give vendors a way to sell their crafts."

BOS plans to offer a series of pop-up markets again in 2021, starting on April 30 and May 1. 

BOS staff also put together a series of virtual programs for small businesses called "Pause with BOS," covering topics like formalizing a business plan and growing a business. The series drew business owners from Ypsilanti, Canton, and Ann Arbor, Newman says.

BOS co-founder Sun Chao says the series was originally planned to help people who were confused about what to do during the lockdown. Once it became clear that people would be staying home and socially distancing much longer than initially predicted, the series also added information about personal protective equipment support resources.

"That series indirectly contributed to the starting of the Association of Businesses of Color," Chao says of a new business league in the Ypsilanti area. "We reached out to other community leaders and saw this inequity in the distribution of information and resources, and we asked ourselves what we could do about it. That's one of the things I'm most proud of."

BOS staff also strengthened their connection with the Downtown Association of Ypsilanti, Newman says. 

"We met weekly to discuss resources, traffic downtown, what we've heard about neighbors, and how to support one another," Newman says. "If there were any silver linings in the pandemic … I think there's been a real tightening of the small business community. We're all looking out for each other. "

Additionally, BOS opened its doors to students for "learning pods" during the first few months of the 2020-2021 school year, charging them a reduced cost.

"They could work with tutors, and it was a way to keep it safe but not cost-prohibitive," Newman says.

"We even had some high school students get memberships," Newman says. "One young woman came in with her mom. Her mother would work and she could do online school. She told me it was so nice to get out of the house."

Chao also provided a safe outdoor space for Washtenaw County's LGBTQ choir, Out Loud Chorus, to have its first practice session of the fall 2020 season. That was followed by several other sessions when the choir sang outside BOS' offices on Monday evenings or Sunday afternoons.

Chao says he wanted to help when he saw choir members suffering from isolation and the mental health challenges many experienced during the pandemic.

"I was proud to provide a safe place and enough space for everybody to sing," Chao says.

Most of the changes didn't benefit BOS' bottom line at all, but Chao says they're all an investment in the community.

"I'm Chinese, and my business partners are a Canadian immigrant and an immigrant from Grenada. Between the three of us, we traveled more than 10,000 miles to come to Ypsilanti to invest," Chao says. "It's all about what value we create. Some of the things we've done haven't translated into a monetary return, but we view them as investments. We cherish our reputation in the community."

For more Concentrate coverage of our community's response to the COVID-19 crisis, click here.

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

Photos courtesy of BOS.
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