We Need a Rural WeWork Model

The University of Oregon’s 2018 Commencement speaker, Miguel McKelvey, grew up in Eugene, graduated from UO in 1999, and is probably the university’s youngest billionaire alumnus. Amazingly, he made his estimated $1.4 billion in less than a decade.

He and two others founded WeWork in 2010, providing collaborative work spaces in 65 cities around the world, including more than two dozen major American cities. The basic business model is simple enough. WeWork rents workspaces to people and businesses who need an extra office for a few hours a day or a few hours a month.

The additional benefits for WeWork’s members may be less intuitive. Remote or online work can be lonely, so each WeWork facility makes it easy for members to meet one another. There are plenty of generous spaces for collaborating, conference rooms are available, and keg parties are not uncommon.

McKelvey’s degree was in architecture, so his role as Chief Culture Officer is focused on making the work environment as rich and satisfying as possible. As the company’s website describes it, “A place you join as an individual, ‘me’, but where you become part of a greater ‘we’. Community is our catalyst.”

Portland is the nearest WeWork location, and also one of its smaller host cities. McKelvey and his partners started in New York City, where renting a modest office or an apartment with an extra bedroom is out of reach for somebody trying to make it in the gig economy.

WeWork’s economic model is not new. Health clubs essentially rent space and equipment to their members. WeWork provides its members with fast Internet, business-grade printers, and a constant flow of fresh-brewed coffee. Think of them as “work clubs” — because Starbucks doesn’t work for everyone who needs a remote office.

Could the old downtown LCC building on Willamette Street be transformed into a WeWork facility? Possibly, but Eugene already has a couple of forward-looking tech incubators and shared work spaces that are filling this need already quite well. I’m wondering more about Oakridge and Mapleton and Blue River — places so small that they’ve been overlooked by Starbucks.

Small towns are not where the money is, but don’t tell that to Wal-Mart. They focused initially on small markets, where they had less competition. WeWork promises its members a better work environment, but small towns across America would be thrilled to have any work at all. Skiing and fishing don’t last all year, but residents’ desire to eat does.

Small towns have plenty to offer people, so long as they can somehow make a living. Housing costs and crime rates are low. Beauty, especially in Oregon, is easy to access. And the slower pace allows the pleasure of that beauty to sink in.

But jobs are hard to come by in rural America. Why exactly is that, with this thing we have called the Internet? If people had access to a high-speed connection and basic business amenities, how many of those “work from anywhere” jobs could be done by people attracted to — or motivated to stay in — a rural setting?

WeWork’s success relies on the serendipity of meeting others using adjoining workspaces. Can some of the benefits of proximity be replicated in a digital world? What would bring rural neighbors together around shared economic benefits?

Designers constantly rethink assumptions as new tools become available. Early residents of high-rise buildings weren’t meeting one another, because elevators are quicker and quieter than stairs. Automatic garage door openers isolated suburban neighbors. Moving mailboxes back to the curb or to common areas gave people opportunities to bump into one another. Waving and chatting with others is important.

Small towns will die if somebody doesn’t do something different. Could shared workspaces become the beating heart at their center? Those spaces might look less like a brew pub and more like a farmer’s market, but it could work. It could wework.

Given the widening cultural divide between urban and rural America, that’s something a Chief Culture Officer could see as more than an economic opportunity. Bridging that economic gap could be nothing less than an act of patriotism.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.