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Local coworking spaces thrive where WeWork dared not go

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The interior of a row of desks inside a coworking space.

The white colonial-style church with its tall steeple adds an idyllic architectural touch to the prosperous town of Huntington, a Long Island suburb of New York City. But one sign catches your eye from the road: “Coworking space,” he says. “Kind of like WeWork. “It was a church, but not anymore.”

The old church may have been razed and replaced by condominiums, had Michael Hartofilis not purchased it and repurposed it as a coworking place called Main space which opened earlier this year. What was once a high-ceilinged sanctuary has been divided into two floors of coworking space, with cubicles, glass phone booths and minimalist art. Industrial-style beams and modern geometric light fixtures are juxtaposed with intricate preserved crown molding and handcrafted details that hug the building’s windows and doors.

I spent a morning working in the two-split sanctuary, where cubicles with ergonomic desk chairs have replaced church pews. The neon signs and bright colors make it easy to forget that Main Space was once a church and has all the amenities of a typical coworking space: a gym, an ice bath, a kitchen, several conference rooms with comfortable lounge chairs and patterned wallpaper, and an outdoor patio. Patio decorated with a string of lights. But it’s also rooted in the community. On a Thursday afternoon, people were scattered at desks throughout the building and in conference rooms, chatting with each other between their own business calls.

“Ideally, local people” will sign up for the coworking space, says Hartofilis, who also runs an energy company and is working on a social app for the neighborhood. He hopes those who come feel part of something exclusive and get to know each other. But people have already come from neighboring towns or used it as a meeting place between New York City and the towns of Long Island. “There’s not much on offer in terms of coworking spaces, there’s nothing like this.”

Courtesy of the main space

After Covid changed work patterns and styles, coworking remains. The industry is growing and is is expected to continue doing so—despite negative headlines about the company that brought coworking to the masses: WeWork. The coworking giant filed for bankruptcy in November, raising concerns about the model after it accepted office leases at a rapid pace and tried to sublease desks at a premium. Rising interest rates and massive changes in the office space market after the Covid outbreak hit the coworking giant, which at one point was valued at $47 billion. But WeWork is now preparing to rebound and emerge from bankruptcy at the end of May, securing $450 million in new investment and shedding excess office space after renegotiating leases. And industry experts say there’s a lot of potential for coworking to mature.

“Coworking is a great product,” says Jonathan Wasserstrum, partner at Unwriting Capital, which has invested in maneuvering yards, a coworking company in the southeastern US that eschews the title coworking in favor of “work clubs.” The company has spaces in Atlanta; Nashville, Tennessee; and Charlotte, North Carolina. Among its offerings are a former school, a motorcycle garage, a warehouse where elevators were tested and a church. Coworking “is in high demand and will continue to be in high demand,” says Wasserstrum.

Many of the memberships at Switchyards locations are sold out. The company plans to have 25 clubs by the end of the year, with a total of 200 over the next five years. The design and music selection is inspired by libraries, cafes and hotel lobbies rather than offices.

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