Custom clothing designer Jocelyn Dimaya knows she’s terrible with numbers. It’s part of the reason she chose to work in a semi-private office suite surrounded by small-business owners like herself.
By paying a few hundred dollars a month for a membership in a “coworking” establishment in downtown Bakersfield, she gets a modest workspace, access to a conference room where she teaches sewing classes with a business partner and — perhaps best of all — the opportunity to bounce ideas off fellow entrepreneurs nearby.
“It’s nice to have other people around who are willing to pause what they’re doing when you have a question,” she said.
Coworking arrangements, a key ingredient in the tech startup culture driving economic growth and diversification in cities across the country, may soon take off in Bakersfield.
The city’s most substantial coworking space, a 2,300-square-foot series of offices above Dagny’s Coffee Co. at 20th and Eye streets, has grown to the point it now has to turn away potential tenants. That show of demand is leading at least two groups of investors to pursue additional coworking developments nearby.
“I definitely believe it’s the way of the future in Bakersfield,” said commercial real estate broker Jeff Andrew, a partner at Paccom Realty Advisors. He is exploring local opportunities on behalf of an organization managing more than 200,000 square feet of coworking space in downtown Fresno.
The coworking concept is as flexible as it is replicable. For less money than a traditional office building usually charges, entrepreneurs, independent contractors and professionals looking for a change of pace can select from a variety of workspace setups ranging from a chair at a table to a private suite. Sharing common space and amenities such as printers and wireless Internet helps keep overhead costs down.
Collaboration plays a big role in coworking. Independent entrepreneurs typically work side-by-side, avoiding hierarchical relationships as they share knowledge and business opportunities.
Investors in large cities have embraced the trend in recent years, turning one vacant building after another into bustling, 24-hour hotbeds of entrepreneurialism and creativity. By one estimate, the number of coworking spaces worldwide has more than doubled to about 17,000 units since 2015, and is on track to almost double again within four years.
Mesh Cowork, the space above Dagny’s, started with 430 square feet in April 2015. Majority owner Tabari Brannon said the idea then was to establish a place where the city’s fledgling computer technology community and entrepreneurs could come together. Soon, there were coding classes for kids and daylong “hackathon” competitions.
Having grown its footprint fivefold in three years, Mesh now boasts three suites containing a mix of open and assigned seating, plus two private offices and three conference rooms. Tenants have included law firms in need of room for depositions, corporate chains interested in training facilities and an oil company worker looking for a place to concentrate away from the office.
While Mesh continues to expand within its existing building, Brannon has spent the past year and a half searching for a roughly 9,000-square-foot space elsewhere downtown that would offer a premium, “more aesthetically pleasing type of space.”
A group talking about potentially partnering with him on the effort is Fresno-based Bitwise Industries. The company has met with Bakersfield elected and appointed officials to discuss the local benefits of expanding coworking downtown.
CEO Jake Soberal said the company is open to expansion opportunities, possibly involving local properties, but would not confirm any interest in investing directly in Bakersfield. But several people in Bakersfield confirmed Bitwise is actively seeking coworking space in the city, with or without Mesh.
Bakersfield is enough like Fresno that Bitwise’s success to date suggests coworking will thrive here, Soberal said.
“You don’t need to look any further than to look at the number of laptops that are open any given day at (Cafe) Smitten,” he said, referring to the coffeehouse at 909 18th St. in downtown Bakersfield.
Downtown real estate broker Austin Smith sees coworking’s local potential, too, not just as a business endeavor but as a means of economic diversification.
“The more cowork you have, the more of that (diversification) is enabled because you’re able to attract more industries and different types of knowledge workers,” he said, “because the barriers are lower.”
Probably the best place for it is downtown, he added, because the area has a number of underutilized buildings, a “sense of place” and a variety of amenities attractive to the kind of young, tech-savvy workers who tend to gravitate toward coworking environments.
But it would be shortsighted to think downtown is the only place coworking fits in Bakersfield, said investor John P. “J.P.” Lake, who has discussed working with Bitwise and others about helping develop the concept locally.
He sees coworking as working particularly well in an educational setting, as students work alongside experienced web developers and others in the tech industry. Somewhere near Bakersfield College might be a good location, he said, as might the vicinity of Cal State Bakersfield.
Having toured Bitwise in downtown Fresno, he’s convinced there’s plenty of demand for a similar project in Bakersfield. He predicted one will open sometime next year.
Real estate developer Robert Massey is working on a parallel track, hoping to open his own coworking space by the middle of next year on the 10,000-square-foot second floor of a building he bought in January at the southwest corner of 18th and H streets.
The way space is developed will determine how much demand arises, he said. His plan is to add an elevator to the building, keep the central space open and install modern touches such as bare brick walls and industrial steel windows.
“If the space is built out correctly and you create the right environment,” he said by email, “attracting tenants hopefully will not be a problem.”
John Cox can be reached at 661-395-7404. Follow him on Twitter: @TheThirdGraf.