As I wait in one of the tastefully decorated reception areas in the multi-story Front Range Business Centers in Fort Collins, the work space bustles with activity: a virtual member jumps out of the elevator to grab his mail from the office manager, Amy, smiling calmly behind the front desk, a member troubleshoots an answering service dilemma with colleagues, and a few waiting clients page through magazines. Are they meeting with an attorney, tax accountant, counselor, financial adviser, real estate agent, or mortgage broker? The diversity of white collar professionals who cowork at the Front Range Business Centers leave my question hanging in the air.
Located in the First National Bank building on the southeast corner of College and Boardwalk, the fifty-seven private offices are ideally appointed in the geographic heart of Fort Collins. Just up the road from the executive suites are dozens of restaurants, the Foothills Mall, the Post Office, and several hotels. The MAX Bus Rapid Transit has a station nearby so commuters can avoid midtown traffic by taking the eco-friendly transit from the north or south sides of town. Though occupying the fourth and third floors, the whole space is ADA accessible by elevator although I prefer taking the stairs which switchback through a glassed-in atrium with a huge tree and plants.
Sandra Greer was thrilled to find this prime real estate fourteen years ago when she moved to Fort Collins from Seattle to be with her newly retired parents. A master of business administration, Sandra had worked in non-profits for several years and was looking for a change. With experience in tech, finance, entrepreneurship, and even some facilities management as a young woman working as a receptionist, she found the perfect overlap in coworking space ownership and office management. It was as if she made a Venn diagram of all her experiences and found this career right in the middle, plus her non-profit experience proved she could “wear several hats” with ease. The demand for offices existed, according to some market research she did early on, and Sandra soon filled the space after opening in 2004. One founding member attorney still works in the office he moved into fourteen years ago before the dust had even settled. Demand caused Sandra to expand from forty to fifty-seven offices, nearly all with windows, within just a few years of opening in Fort Collins. She opened a second location at Centerra in Loveland in 2007, right after the recession. Though things were shaky for a bit, the Loveland location is now thriving.
After the recession many companies had to downsize and chose to get rid of space rather than people. Many software companies scrambled to find homes for their workers. Front Range Business Centers offered small clusters of offices or larger spaces to house multiple personnel to displaced workers. Not only did the space save some jobs, it also benefited new companies. According to Sanda, “because tech and business change so fast, these industries need to find temporary space quickly.” Renting space allows companies to reduce risk, be adaptable, and grow exponentially. Sandra also rents space to seasonal tax preparers or parents seeking a reprieve from raucous home offices during the summer months.
Before the contemporary iteration of communal coworking experienced a renaissance in San Francisco in 2005, lawyers had been sharing office space for nearly forty years. Regus, a Belgium company, started shared offices all over Europe in the 1980s. Sandra traces the legacy of her business center to attorney Paul Fegan in California. In the 1970s, Paul Fegan rented out extra space in his law office to freelancing attorneys and the shared law office suite was born. Attorneys shared reception services and, for many, it was the most practical way to semi-retire while retaining some clients. Likewise, many of Sandra’s clients are semi-retired lawyers who work a few hours or days a week. Because of this legacy, Sandra considers Front Range Business Centers more of an executive suite than a coworking space. Seventy-five percent of Sandra’s members are virtual members. She attributes this to the fact that they have several staff members and extensive services to offer virtual clients. This is quite a popular service and she has virtual members in Australia, London, and far flung places in the U.S.
Always sensitive to the demands of the market, Front Range Business Centers has adapted over the years. Sandra laughs at the irony that many old school executive suites, like Front Range Office Center, are tearing down interior walls to have a more open coworking feel and many coworking spaces are starting to put up walls to create more private offices. It’s been interesting to watch the industry change and perceptions change over the last fourteen years,” Sandra says.
The business center is quiet, professional, and cozy. All offices are private and most have huge windows, some with views of the Front Range. The culture is not very social but there’s always a holiday party for both Loveland and Fort Collins business centers to meet and celebrate. Since Sandra knows her clients so well she has had the pleasure of connecting tax accountants to attorneys. For example, often a financial adviser can refer her clients to an attorney down the hall for help writing wills and other legal documents. Sandra sees what Front Range Business Centers offers as a service as opposed to a product. From her perspective, she is providing her clients with peace of mind, security, and facilities basics. When they use a conference room, she makes sure the projector is working and connected. When a mental health professional rents her counseling office, she assures the comfortable couch, armchairs, and tissues make the space feel safe and confidential. The bathrooms, the windows, the plants, and coffeemaker: all the requisite amenities of an office are taken care of and this service allows clients to simply focus on their work.
I asked Sandra when she knew her business would succeed, or more importantly, when she knew it would be her career. “As soon as I opened I knew it would be my thing,” she replies. But she doesn’t deny the fear she felt when she signed a five year lease with no committed clients. “That’s a lot of money to be on the hook for,” she thought as she put her name on the dotted line. However, within six months of opening after extensive construction on a shoestring budget, she was making a profit. By the time the doors opened, ten offices were rented and the building filled quickly at a time when there was only one other coworking space in Old Town. Now she manages one third of the building’s space. She is grateful for architectural consultants who specialized in executive suite design as well as the Global Workspace Association for serving as a resource. She’s also happy to have compatriots in the Fort Collins Coworking Alliance to commiserate and share the coworking experience with.
There’s never been much vacancy in the Front Range Business Centers but Sandra showed me a lovely corner office, with floor to ceiling windows, facing the Front Range vista. As soon as I walked in the door I imagined where I’d put my desk so I could look up from my computer screen and see the mountains haloed by clouds.
Natalie Scarlett is a freelance writer, editor, journalist, and teacher in Fort Collins, Colorado. She is the founder of Huckleberry Literary and Cipher Creative Productions. In addition to loving all things literary she directs original film, theater, and movement pieces. Her writing has been published in Splat, Aspect: Ratio, Mid-American Review, and (Salt) Arts and Culture Magazine. She likes to write about Fort Collins local color, immersive theater, and any kind of art.