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Coworking: An economic development idea for rural America?

Mobile tech and the Internet means many knowledge workers can work from anywhere. But when we think of laptop-armed telecommuters tapping away in coffee shops, it’s usually very specific places that come to mind, places like San Francisco and New York City. But can remote work tech fulfill its promise of freeing us from location dependence and bring the promise of better jobs to rural areas?

It’s an idea we’ve covered before, noting the trend of “rural sourcing,” which offers the dual benefits of lower wages to companies and economic development to out-of-the-way places (also, plenty of workers simply prefer the lifestyle – and lower property prices – of more rural area). But it’s not just corporate remote employees that are bringing big city work into small towns; co-working spaces are hoping to achieve the same thing for freelancers, startups and small businesses.

At least that’s what local Kentucky-focused site KYForward recently suggested. Reporting for the site, Mark W. Kidd outlines the efforts of economic development non-profit Virginia Economic Bridge to bring coworking to central Appalachia with the opening of a space in Radford this fall. According to Kidd, the organization sees several reasons coworking might be a good fit for rural communities:

Coworking is flexible enough to accommodate for-profit, non-profit, or agency ownership, making the model adaptable to local economic and funding realities. Underutilized commercial space is common in many rural communities, and coworking’s flexible, do-it-yourself ethos is particularly suited to adaptations of existing space. This approach also offers resilience, because earned income through membership fees should cover the operational costs of a coworking space, regardless of whether the group seeks added grant or investment funding to procure special equipment or other shared resources….

Coworking bypasses logistical barriers like access to secure, broadband-ready space, features that can be especially vexing for innovators in small communities…. Existing organizations with community facilities – like craft centers, libraries, community colleges, and churches – could be excellent partners for establishing a coworking space.

Besides these advantages, there’s also the money remote workers utilizing the coworking space put back into the local community. Out in California, NextSpace used an economic development model to sell the idea of a coworking to the local authorities, noting that while it might be hard to attract a big employer to airport-less Santa Cruz, there was little stopping individual remote workers from basing themselves there.

“We realized after chasing a lot of companies that instead of attracting one 200-person business, we should attract 200 one-person businesses. The economic impact is bigger, and some of those businesses will grow,” the mayor explained.

A similar argument should apply to Kentucky, though the experiences of other coworking spaces in less urban areas suggest that overcoming lack of awareness about the movement will likely be a significant problem. Luckily, crafty coworking spaces are already coming up with creative ideas to raise awareness.

Is coworking a good way to bring city-sized paychecks to more remote communities?

Image courtesy of Flickr user Base Camp Baker.

4 Responses to “Coworking: An economic development idea for rural America?”

  1. I posted something about coworking in small *urban* areas earlier this week, and I got this insightful response from Indy Hall, a coworking space in Philly: “The key here isn’t population density.”

    They suggest that a sense of community is the key to coworking success. Of course, there would need to be a demand for such a space, and the other issue is broadband availability in rural areas.

    Bottom line, big cities don’t have a monopoly on tech talent, and if companies want to benefit, telework and coworking are going to be the tools to make it happen.

    Here’s my coworking post:

  2. Mark W Kidd

    It’s very exciting to see this conversation about rural coworking take off!

    I’ve one minor correction – the name of the town in Virginia is Radford rather than Radcliff, which appears above.

  3. nightowlspress

    Technology has redefined how we work and the borders of where we work. Independents who freelance with several clients are no longer bound by location restrictions. They work for anyone (global outlook), anywhere (local source) through virtual channels, such as e-mail, Skype, and virtual networking.

    While you still have an advantage living in a big city, like San Francisco or New York, you don’t need to live in a mega city to get a business off the ground. The bare minimum seems to be an internet connection, a savviness with social networking, and a handle on digital and online communication tools.

    With coworking, the excuse to escape your small town or the burbs for nearby urban centers is now less compelling.

    In a book project, “Working in the UnOffice” (, we interviewed over 30 coworking freelancers, startups and nonprofits across the country, as well as 19 coworking space founders. While most were coworking in bigger cities, we also interviewed people happy to be working in the ‘burbs and smaller spots (Bend, OR; Santa Cruz, CA; Felton, CA; Rochester, NY) because they had access to a coworking space and a vibrant community of fellow indie workers.