Here’s a bet worth making: walkable and transit-oriented communities will keep attracting smart people and the businesses that need to employ them over the next generation or more.
But no one says density can only happen within the boundaries of large cities. Welcome the next generation of innovation clustering.
If you take a 20-minute PATCO train ride from 8th Street in Old City over the Ben Franklin Bridge to South Jersey, past rugged Camden and blue-collar-chic Collingswood, you can get off at Haddonfield. From its tiny station, you can walk a half block to Kings Highway, a regal name for a Main Street. In the walkable revival making its way out of big cities into small towns, Haddonfield has advantages over others — it’s relatively wealthy and oh so close to Center City. But anyone interested in their small town’s future should take notice of what’s happening at the intersection of Washington Avenue and Kings Highway.
There on a charming and tree-lined stretch, a couple has officially launched Kings Hall, likely South Jersey’s first proper coworking space. This effort, a far more urbane way to age from young Philadelphia professionals to South Jersey parents, has the dual benefit of being a big bet on what a future Haddonfield can be.
Devon and Sean Perry, handsome and well-networked, put up their own cash to establish a three-building, 13,500-square-foot mini innovation campus. Since launching in December, they already have 50 members in 5,000 square feet of coworking space, though common usage of the space is still shuffling. One August Friday, there were just a handful in the main first floor coworking room. But perhaps most interestingly, upstairs was a pack of developers from Linode, the cloud computing company that has clawed its way from suburban Atlantic City to more fertile ground for tech talent.
“We’ve already heard from Linodians,” said Keith Craig, a Linode spokesman and South Jersey native using the company’s internal lingo. “This is a place they want to work.” That might be why the company hosted its own jobs fair at Kings Hall, using the unique space as a selling point to attract applicants from Center City and broader South Jersey.
The rest of the Kings Hall space includes two larger private offices, one for architecture firm Sikora Wells Appel and another for Re/Max of Haddonfield.
Like other coworking spaces, the Perrys are bringing together first their own extended network. From there, they hope to expand other like-minded people.
“Kings Hall represents starting up after growing up,” said Devon, 35, a Cherry Hill native, fast-talking and excitable. She is the natural front face, recruiting and networking. Her husband Sean, also 35, handles finances and building maintenance on off-hours from his job as a systems engineer at Boeing’s Ridley Park offices. They’re aided by a precocious Temple University sophomore, Logan Peterson, who reached out after reading an early article on their work.
Of bringing coworking to a small town, “There’s nothing but good energy about starting something like that in a place like this,” said Devon over lunch last month.
A young mother of three kids including four-year-old twins, she has blonde hair and is vivid in a blue dress and scarf she got from one of those online personal fashion box services. It’s hard to miss her, but it’s more what she says than what she’s wearing. She switches between sharing tips (“Really Stitch Fix is an amazing service!”), tossing out possible partnership ideas (“I’ll do an email introduction right now!”) and greeting by name the staff and owners of the Bistro diner that is among the anchors on Kings Highway (“Oh, he looks like he could be your son!”).
Devon has every intention of being remembered.
She just might be one of those key figures that any small town cluster needs to thrive in the future: restauranteur, book shop clerk, coffee shop barista, bicycle shop owner and, maybe, just maybe, coworking proprietor. Other thriving satellite cities have someone like her — look at Conshohocken’s Paul McConnell. In a 1099 economy that traffics in web entrepreneurs and software coders, communities of any size will only work if they’re attractive places to live for people with lots of choices.
Like urbanist Richard Florida says, when enough communities work density into their makeup, it’s less about which one is better than the rest and more about which is better for each individual.
The Perrys, who live a stroller walk away, are hoping to make a lifestyle business out of a potential Haddonfield economic development engine. To start, they have three adjacent buildings under the Kings Hall brand:
- 14 Kings Hwy W: This newly renovated center-hall Colonial might be the first you notice, adorned with a reclaimed wood sign out front. It will be the signature Kings Hall building, with its narrow first floor open desk options for coworking memberships. Upstairs there are small conference rooms and one larger office currently occupied by a Linode dev team.
- 8 Kings Hwy W: This former funeral home now houses a tech-connected conference room and a flexible event space, in addition to a pair of anchor tenants.
- 2 Kings Hwy W: At the very corner of Washington and Kings Highway, this is the only rental of the three properties (the Perrys own the other two) and it’s about to be renovated next. It was hosting members while 14 West was being worked on.
Devon Perry (née Segel) comes from entrepreneurial stock. It was her grandfather Joseph Segel, a serial entrepreneur and founder of home-shopping giant QVC, who helped pull her from a stint of nonprofit marketing gigs in her 20s into a burgeoning tech entrepreneurship community in her 30s. Together they marketed an online BYOB restaurant tool that they later sold off while she was working at the United Way.
Something is different with this project.
No doubt there is a business plan in action — it’s clear the Perrys put considerable wealth into getting Kings Hall launched and they intend to recoup the investment. But this is no cash grab. It appears the Perrys are approaching the effort with equal parts mission and money.
“We became dedicated to bringing the buildings themselves back to life,” said Devon’s husband Sean. “The Kings Hall coworking concept grew as the rehabilitation of the properties progressed. Now with most of the renovations complete, I’ve become just as interested in seeing the Kings Hall coworking campus continue to grow.”
They have that trio of stable anchor tenants and an expanding if still-small group of starter members — from a golf pro with an ecommerce play to a family foundation director interested in social enterprise. But they also see this as something both for Haddonfield and for the region, with the community they are coalescing as their strongest gift.
Devon in particular said she feels very connected to Philadelphia and sees her work with Kings Hall strengthening that broader entrepreneurship community. She helped organize at Kings Hall one of the more creative Philly Tech Week events this spring. It’s neatly symbolized by their physical presence, made of old buildings that were in disrepair when they bought them from years of disinvestment on a small town Main Street.
“We are temporary stewards of these buildings,” she said. “We hope they’ll last another 100 years.”