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Co-working spaces could develop startup community in Greater MN

The coffee pot is always on. And when someone goes for a refill, they might bump into a software developer, a manufacturer promoting 3-D printing technology, or a safety engineer who just wrapped up a webinar watched by hundreds of people nationwide.

Some people might envision this scene in a downtown high-rise – but it’s actually the everyday reality of Workup, a co-working space in Willmar that could serve as the model for a pilot project in Greater Minnesota.

HF2419, sponsored by Rep. Kristin Robbins (R-Maple Grove), would appropriate $50,000 in Fiscal Year 2020 – requiring a 100 percent match – to develop a co-working site with broadband internet in an underserved community.

The House Jobs and Economic Development Finance Division held the bill over Thursday for possible omnibus bill inclusion. There is no Senate companion.

The idea is to foster startup businesses and give people who want to work in Greater Minnesota the opportunity to do so.

The state could lose 10 years of economic development opportunities by waiting for broadband to reach all homes in Greater Minnesota. A faster, more economical, solution is to create hubs for people to access the tools they need in a productive, collaborative work environment.

Workup has allowed people to relocate to Willmar, whether independently or in support of a spouse who found work in the area, who wouldn’t have been able to, otherwise, said Workup founder Betsy Bonnema.

More than 35 freelancers, remote workers, consultants, educators, product developers, and community organizations currently use Workup as their base of operations. But the impact is much larger, with programming that has served more than 50 companies from a large geographic area, she said.

These include classes, speakers, workshops like Startup Bootcamp, and a Startup Pitch Night, in which prospective business owners can get input from more experienced peers.

“There’s people who need the space and there’s people who need the community and there’s a lot of people who need both,” Bonnema said.

Last week, division chair Rep. Tim Mahoney (DFL-St. Paul) expressed his frustration with the difficulty of getting investors to invest in Greater Minnesota businesses. He challenged testifiers from the tech industry to explain what they were doing to change the Twin-Cities-centric culture, and pushed for a substantial solution.

No one had a satisfactory answer for him, but the discussion inspired Robbins to develop HF2419, which she hopes will serve as “a catalyst for future growth” and help to close gaps in access to both technology and professional networks.

“People don’t have the same access to human capital and networks that can support their business development, she said.”

Robbins intends to develop the idea further, using this pilot project as a starting point and drawing on key topics discussed by the division.

“This space is like something we’ve never seen in rural Minnesota before,” Rep. Dave Baker (R-Willmar) said. “It’s such a collaborative space … we need more of these.”

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