(Photo by Flickr user Doug Kerr, used under a Creative Commons license)
This story is part of Grow PA, a reported series on economic development across 10 Pennsylvania counties supported by the Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia. Sign up for our weekly curated email here.
Meadville, Pa., is a small city of under 13,000 nestled in the northwestern part of the state. Throughout most of the 20th century, it was known for being the home of manufacturers such as Talon Zipper, rayon factory American Viscose Corporation and tool company Channellock — earning the moniker Tool City, USA.
However, when the Great Lakes Region was hit with a decline in heavy industry in the 1970s and ’80s, Meadville lost Talon and Viscose and struggled for decades to return to the economic status it once had, and to restore the pride that came from steady work.
Over the last decade, there has been a new wave of civic and business energy in Meadville, and a new coworking space called Foundry CoWork hopes to give entrepreneurs and community organizers the tools they need to rebuild Meadville’s economy.
With Foundry CoWork, Meadville joins a great many small cities and towns across the country that have seen coworking as the first step toward business innovation: West Chester’s Walnut St. Labs, Phoenixville’s Dream Factory and Media’s HeadRoom, which gained 15 paying members before opening, just to name a few in Pennsylvania.
Coworking has worked in some small cities — such as Haddonfield, N.J.’s King’s Hall, which has housed small-team outposts of larger tech companies — but it has failed for others — such as Rehoboth, Del.’s beachside coworking space Beach Desks. Far below the WeWorks of the world, community and critical mass often dictate the fate of indy coworking companies in smaller cities.
Allegheny College graduate Heather Fish founded Foundry CoWork in September of 2016. She’s one of many to stick around town after graduating to help improve Meadville’s business and civic spirit.
“There was a lot of fear that if people put in the time and effort to start a business, that it wouldn’t work out,” Fish said. “But there are enough people who are excited and willing to put in the work. People will show up. People won’t show up if you just keep talking about it.”
Fish founded Foundry CoWork to give Meadville’s entrepreneurs, small business owners and community organizers a space to do just that.
“There was nowhere to work on projects if it wasn’t your full-time job, or someplace to work together so we wouldn’t repeat each other’s work,” said Fish. Plus, she added, Meadville was in need of a space that offered reliable WiFi.
After hearing from a friend about Radius Cowork in Erie, Fish decided to apply for Meadville’s fourth annual Renaissance Center Office Giveaway in which contestants are eligible to win up to 1,500 square feet of office space for one year. Fish expressed interest in using the giveaway as an opportunity to use space in the Parkside Commons, originally a junior high school built in the early 1900s that has been renovated and used as a commercial building since 2006, and won.
Within the Commons, Fish has a large space with common areas, multi-use rooms and offices. She handpicks applicants for the space carefully.
“It’s more-so about selling a community than a desk,” said Fish.
So far, content agency Bull Moose Marketing and community resource Meadville Calendar have yearlong memberships with the Foundry, and Fish is speaking with others about signing on.
“There were a lot of people in town who needed a new start. There were a lot of people doing great work, but were stuck at home,” Fish said. “What has been holding people back is bureaucracy. Recently people have been more comfortable asking for help and know that help is out there.”
Fish hopes Foundry CoWork will help promote the melding of ideas and a perpetuate forward movement among small businesses and community initiatives in town.
“It is possible to pull yourself up from economic depression in a Rust Belt town,” she said.-30-
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