As Founder & President of The Space On Main, I gave testimony on-site today in support of coworking, makerspaces, broadband, and entrepreneurship at a Vermont Senate Committee On Economic Development, Housing & General Affairs hearing on Rural Economic Development & Innovation. My testimony and full hearing video are below (Matt Dunne starts off the hearing at 1:00:00).
My name is Monique Priestley. I grew up directly across the river in Piermont, NH and then moved to Bradford during high school. I attended UVM and Northern VT University (Lyndon) for my undergraduate degrees and left for 15 months to get a Master of Communication in Digital Media at the University of Washington in Seattle. While in grad school, I worked for a Seattle software company that I continue to work full-time for, remotely, 9 years later. I continue to commute back and forth every few months to catch up with coworkers and to get a dose of an urban environment.
I serve on a number of local, municipal, and state boards including everything from our local health care center, to planning commission, to Chamber of Commerce, to the Vermont Council on Rural Development. This space was a retirement goal of mine, but at 30, our town was losing key businesses and every local meeting was filled with a palpable mixture of depression and desperation – wondering how to attract businesses, professionals, and young people.
You have heard and are going to continue hearing of the need for better access to broadband, a need to push technical education, and a need for better access to affordable and workforce housing. These are critical problems that need to be solved. We think an equally important problem is a lost sense of connection and community. A lack of communication and collaboration. A lost sense of civic responsibility. And a lack of sharing skills and resources. And we believe that coworking and makerspaces can address these problems head on.
Coworking and makerspaces facilitate efficient, affordable, and convenient sharing of resources. The remote worker, the contractor, the freelancer, the entrepreneur, the solopreneur, the working parent with a side-hustle, the traveling consultant. These individuals are not required to have an office space. In rural Vermont, it does not make sense to drop hundreds of dollars a month to drive to a location where they are most likely still going to be working in isolation. But $100/month to work in a shared, professional space where they can meet clients, have access to fast Internet, and have facilitated access to a network of people who can grow their businesses, their skills, the social circle, and their awareness of others in their community? That is game changing. In our handout, you will see that people joined The Space On Main for access to faster Internet access, but more importantly, they joined just to be around other people. They want to be engaged. They want to grow with, learn from, and share with others.
The Space On Main has been open for less than 4 months and already, our members have blown us away. They will tell you that this space saved their lives, their relationships, or their businesses. One member reported invoicing for more earnings in his first month than he has ever invoiced in his career. That same member shared that something as simple as access to a table and whiteboard made his product more professional. And that access to video equipment could enable him to evolve his real-time global reach to automated global reach that would allow him to help more people, make more money, hire staff, and require him to partner with other members to make up for his weaker areas such as marketing. Every single one of our members and many members of the broader community wants to start, evolve, or scale a business, but they need support and a network to do so. And that is what we provide, but it is going to be a struggle to purchase required equipment, make overhead, offer programming, and try to build in salary for a paid employee to manage things.
There are a few keys areas where we believe the state can make huge impact:
1. A more expansive broadband network, which in turn would lower costs. When we priced out fiber a year ago, it was going to be $2200/month, then $1100/month, and is currently $375/month for 50/50 (half of what it should be). After the lease, it is our greatest monthly expense.
2. A remote worker program that markets and matches people with available spaces. Even if you manage to convince a remote worker to come to Vermont and throw a few thousand dollars at them, you are not giving them a community to engage with. They are going to be isolated, in a new environment, with no real investment or connection to Vermont. They are going to feel the disconnection from the professional network they had in the city. Instead, buy them a year at a coworking space. Give that coworking space money to survive and to invest in programming that will allow them to offer professional development and networking opportunities to that worker.
3. Financially support or incentivize business and entrepreurial programming. We recently attended a facilitator training for a business accelerator training at LaunchVT. Ideally, The Space On Main would offer this 9 week program 3 times throughout the year. Each cohort can accommodate up to 16 people. From each, if 4 businesses result and even one stays and hires 10 people, that is 30 new jobs a year. We already have a full waiting list for the first cohort. Once that’s in place, We will expand similar programming to local tech center students. And from there, we will offer in-depth training in coding, accounting, business development, scaling, and more.
And as an additional note after receiving the proposed legislation list, absolutely expand the Downtown program. Receiving state tax credits was a make-or-break moment for this renovation project.
(Matt Dunne starts speaking approximately 1:00:00 in.)
Photo credit for featured image: Matt Dunne