Beyond the coffee shop: Cincy co-working scene diversifies to meet growing demand

Considering leaving the safe haven of company employment and venturing out on your own? It’s a big decision, but one that Americans are making in record numbers. Fortunately for freelancing Cincinnatians, a growing number of local co-working spots supports a wide range of professional endeavors — everything from wordsmith-ing to woodworking.
For the uninitiated, and despite what its root words suggest, co-working does not mean job-sharing; it means sharing a workspace with other independent professionals. It’s a chance to be self-employed without being limited to your home office and without giving up the social, creative and networking aspects that come with traditional office settings. And it’s a trend that’s gaining momentum nationwide, if certain sources are to be believed — a study by financial services company Intuit and consulting firm Emergent Research predicts that freelancers will comprise 43 percent of the American workforce by 2020.
In large part, that newly self-employed group will conduct office-based jobs like sales, marketing and project management, with workspace needs that go beyond what their local coffee shops can provide. High-speed internet, whiteboard, private meeting spaces and professional presentation capabilities are just a few of the amenities this modern workforce has come to expect.
Executive-level members require even more from a co-working space, so providers like Tamara Schwarting of 1628 Ltd. are rising to that challenge. The 15-year Procter & Gamble veteran conducted extensive market research in designing her “curated co-working space” geared toward mid-career professionals — some of them former employees of P&G and other big-name firms — as well as visiting executives and corporate clients.
“I draw inspiration from marrying the boutique hotel environment with an office environment,” Schwarting says. “Personally, I’ve always been inspired by art and by being in a place that allows you to have an aesthetic that drives creativity. Even if you’re a traditional business person, you’re having to come up with creative solutions, so having a place that’s visually inspiring is important.”
Located at 11 Garfield Place, 1628 provides that kind of upmarket aesthetic; distinctive upholstery, modern art and reclaimed wood punctuate the space. For those interested in more than chic décor, 1628 membership includes access to teleconference-enabled meeting spaces, onsite concierge services and inclusion in a preferred partner network.
“We’re not interested in being a one-stop shop for everyone,” says Schwarting, who is a self-described urbanist and longtime OTR resident. “What we’re hoping to do in part is be a resource, not only for Cincinnati-based people but for people who come here for business, to allow them to be as productive as they would be in their home city.”
Creative collaboration, living-room style
Other co-working space providers take a slightly more casual, community-driven approach.
“We definitely didn’t do any market research when we set out to do this,” says Ollie Kroner, whose Playground Coworks shares a courtyard with indie staple Northside Tavern. “But I think in some ways it’s a reflection of the neighborhood. We offer a cool, approachable space. We’re happy to host anybody. We’re not really targeting a core audience the way some co-working spaces are. We kind of want it to be a living-room-with-desks type of feeling.”
In its 18-month existence, Kroner says Playground has mostly attracted full-time creatives and those with creative side projects beyond their nine-to-five jobs. The space is comfortable, with an open layout, 14 individual desks and separate meeting space. Kroner thinks the design breeds collaboration, rather than any competitive scramble for freelance resources.
“Just recently we had a logo designer and jewelry maker who met here and then teamed up to do work together,” Kroner says. “I would say that’s more the normal vibe.”  
The process for becoming a member at Playground is simple: call the number listed on the website. A quick conversation with Kroner will determine whether your project is a good fit.
“There are very few people we’ve turned away, and those were really just people who didn’t fully understand the concept of co-working,” Kroner says, laughing. “One person even asked if he could live here.”
Co-working movement grows lock-step with entrepreneurs
Where style and approach are concerned, Cintrifuse’s Union Hall lies somewhere between the two very distinctive co-working models of 1628 and Playground.
Billed as “a dynamic center of gravity for entrepreneurs,” the 38,000-square-foot venue at 1311 Vine St. boasts four floors of co-working space, conference rooms and meeting areas. Union Hall spawned from Cintrifuse’s mission of facilitating relationships to build a sustainable tech-based economy in Cincinnati. Many of the region's noteworthy projects have roots in the local startup ecosystem, which includes Cintrifuse, HCDC, The Brandery, CincyTech, Queen City Angels and a number of other organizations.
“Union Hall plays an important role in the revitalization of OTR,” says Eric Weissmann, director of marketing and communications at Cintrifuse. “Different than the coffee shops, restaurants or condos up and down Vine or Main, we bring approximately 100 people to the neighborhood every day — during the day. These are folks that walk to the coffee shops, meet for happy hour in the bars, park in the parking lots, etc. It’s an important ingredient to creating a vibrant community, which is what we’re all about.”
Despite the recent flurry of activity — plus the introduction of brewery-slash-business-incubators like Braxton in Covington and OTR’s Rhinegeist — Cincinnati has a long way to go in developing its co-working scene to rival those in cities like Denver, Philadelphia and Seattle.
“Co-working in general is underdeveloped in the Cincinnati market,” says Schwarting, whose year-long research compared models throughout the U.S. and globally.

After starting her consulting business in 2015, Schwarting says, “It didn’t take me long to realize that we did not have many, if any, viable options for the traditional office environment. Compared with other cities our size or larger, we should have more offerings than we do.”
Fitting, that a concept created to help independent professionals spread their wings now seeks the next wave of co-working entrepreneurs to do just that.
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Read more articles by Hannah Purnell.

Hannah Purnell is a lifelong Northern Kentuckian who writes extensively about regional issues related to arts and culture, politics and economic development.