The region’s civic leaders, community advocates, business owners, nonprofit professionals, and others representing the innumerable talents of the Killington-Rutland community gathered Monday evening, Nov. 14, to celebrate the much-anticipated grand opening of The Hub CoWorks in downtown Rutland.
For this former Manhattanite to compare the buzz of anticipation in the 24,000-square-foot office space to that of a Times Square crowd on New Year’s Eve is not hyperbole. The launch of The Hub, a public-private partnership between CEDRR (Chamber and Economic Development of the Rutland Region) and MKF Properties, is momentous.
The Hub CoWorks will be the site of a tech startup incubator called Startup Rutland, whose business proposition, according to CEDRR, is “…to inspire a regional culture and community of tech innovation, create and implement a scalable technology support program, and develop a mentor and investor network providing tech entrepreneurs and other enterprises the human and financial capital they need for growing and scaling their businesses.”
On Monday evening, CEDRR executive director Lyle Jepson summed it up in a more light-hearted and poignant way.
“A group of us working on the project had begun to compare ourselves to the characters journeying to the Emerald City — the land of Oz,” remarked Jepson. He credited the analogy to CEDRR volunteer Richard Gile (who was honored as CEDRR’s volunteer of the year).
“We had the heart, we had the courage, and we had the brains,” Jepson said. “All we needed was a grand space — our own Emerald City — to bring it all to fruition and, ultimately, launch the enterprise that will strategically transform Rutland’s future.”
Mark Foley Jr., owner of MKF Properties, noted with awe and appreciation that, “The Hub is one of the most rewarding projects I’ve ever been involved in. It will become the resource that will unlock the potential of our community.”
Foley, one of the most admired business owners and philanthropists in Vermont, is the leader of the team that converted and remodeled the decades-old Opera House into the 21st century center for innovation that will now house The Hub.
Both Foley and Jepson were active in engaging the community to provide ideas and insights in developing The Hub. Consequently, The Hub garnered enthusiastic support early on from Vermont’s largest employers, respected nonprofits, small business owners, and other influential stakeholders.
The list of The Hub’s champions include: Casella Waste Management, Rutland Regional Medical Center, General Electric Aviation, VELCO, Green Mountain Power, Four Seasons Sotheby’s International Realty, Rutland Regional Planning Commission, Vermont Community Foundation, Castleton University, the Center for Women & Enterprise, the Vermont Small Business Development Center, the MINT-Rutland’s Makerspace, NAACP-Rutland Chapter, Killington Resorts, Evolve Rutland, and Rutland Young Professionals.
The prestige of these collaborators providing matching funds and other support is, in and of itself, powerful affirmation of The Hub’s business proposition. It ultimately led to CEDRR’s securing a nearly $1.5 million Build- to-Scale Venture Challenge grant last month from the U.S. Economic Development Administration (US EDA).
(As a nonprofit consultant and former business professor who has produced and evaluated numerous business plans, I can attest that funders base their most critical decisions about whether to fund, on the caliber of the entrepreneurs making the ask. They scrutinize the team as intensely as the financials.)
CEDRR demonstrated, through the extensive experience and expertise of its 350 lead members as well as committee contributors, that it had more than the requisite “right team:” the experience and expertise to persuade decision-makers that the proposed venture is a well-constructed business proposition; that the venture fulfills an essential unmet need and will generate early revenue; and — just as critical — that the venture’s leaders have an almost limitless passion to succeed.
John Casella Jr., CEDRR’s current president who was honored as community leader of the year, alluded to the right team in his remarks at the event, “It truly is a partnership, and it takes all of us.”
In a small state like Vermont, with numerous daily and weekly newspapers, it’s not surprising to see reader op-eds that grouse about their downtowns. In that regard, the launch of The Hub CoWorks evokes the memorable quote by esteemed anthropologist Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
In a one-on-one sit-down interview last week before the official opening of The Hub, Lyle Jepson and Mark Foley Jr. detailed the vision CEDRR’s “committed citizens” have had for the Hub from its very early stages. (The following quotes have been edited for clarity.)
“The idea for the Hub came from looking closely at how to turn our region’s untapped strengths and opportunities into more productive components of a vibrant downtown,” said Foley. “The Hub is designed to facilitate the growth of the Rutland region into a digital economy, in a systematic and meaningful way.
“The Hub is that place, where creative professionals can do all kinds of productive work: tech innovation, art, education, inventions of all kinds, especially in the STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, math) fields, with collaborations happening organically, among energetic people working in proximity.
“Think about our local fifth graders learning about robotics. If they don’t see where they can find [that] employment here in Rutland, we won’t be able to keep them here,” Foley continued. “Which means, we won’t be able to support the small businesses that are here now — the coffee shops, restaurants, boutiques, fitness studios, and other assets that make for a vibrant downtown.”
Jepson referenced the fact that many Rutland-area business support organizations are doing good work, but are doing so in isolation, which minimizes their economic impact.
“The Hub will strengthen connections between service providers and provide a visible pathway of learning and potential positive outcomes,” he explained. “It will also facilitate connectivity and access to capital for early-stage entrepreneurship. This will include ongoing consultancy by mentors who have the experience and expertise to accelerate a start-up’s strategic growth.”
The three overarching programs and services of Startup Rutland at The Hub will comprise: Digital Economy Culture Building & Communication; Entrepreneurship-Business Incubation & Support Programming; and a Professional Mentor Network.
In securing the instrumental $1.5 million federal grant, CEDRR worked with the Center on Rural Innovation (CORI) as part of CORI’s 2022 Rural Innovation Initiative, a technical assistance program empowering rural communities to create inclusive digital economies that support scalable entrepreneurship and tech job creation.
Despite applicants from 31 states, only 51 grants were awarded, and Rutland was one of just eight rural applicants to receive the award this year. Plus, Rutland’s membership in CORI’s Rural Innovation Network provides it with access to a growing collective of rural communities in 24 states across the country that are working to train local residents in digital skills, employ them in new economy jobs, and empower them to launch the startups that will drive their future economies.
Matt Dunne, founder and executive director of CORI, said of CEDRR’s commitment: “The work that goes into the Rural Innovation Initiative process requires intense focus, unwavering optimism, and a clear vision for the future — which is why it’s been so exciting to watch these communities receive Build to Scale funding.”
Jepson and Foley noted that the launch of The Hub CoWorks represents a significant milestone for CEDRR’s 10-year Regional Marketing Plan, developed in 2018. As an organization with a wide and diverse reach, and with decades of economic development service to the region, CEDRR is uniquely positioned to now lead the development of Startup Rutland, overseeing its successful launch, and driving its growth for the benefit of the entire region.
CEDRR’s triumph in launching The MINT, Rutland’s Makerspace, has been touted as a prime example of successful ideation, collaboration, and invention for 21st century Rutland. CEDRR provided the space and organizational structure as an onramp for makers to gather, learn and grow their innovative ideas in an incubator facility that allows for prototyping and commercialization. Now entering its sixth year of operation the MINT has since doubled its space to 14,000 square feet, and is ready for yet another expansion, guided by Kimberly Griffin, The MINT’s first fulltime executive director.
CEDRR’s initial launch plan for The Hub is very strategic and includes projected revenue streams that transcend the US EDA grant. Those include:
- Revenue generated by programming offered simultaneously to non-tech startups within the same cohort as the tech entrepreneurs
- Special events, and event fees from workshops, meet ups and classes
- Local business sponsorship
- Revenue-sharing partnership with MKF Properties for The Hub CoWorks memberships
Jepson also confirmed that Rutland City has loan and grant opportunities for startup businesses that locate in the city, and entrepreneurs within The Hub programs will be able to apply for such funding.
As for The Hub’s space, the soaring historic architecture of The Opera House, with its numerous windows framing the views of mountains, treetops, and Rutland’s downtown, make for a dramatic yet convivial place to work. Exposed brick walls and bright white spaces, which Foley said will eventually be filled with art, alternate throughout, appealing to traditionalists and modernists alike. There are spacious public areas, conference rooms and classrooms, as well as private offices and individual desks. Future plans include space for a podcasting facility.
The Hub CoWorks will offer a variety of membership options, for corporations, nonprofits, or individuals, with day and monthly rates that are designed to meet the needs of remote workers. Members can rent a “hot desk” (i.e., unassigned) or a dedicated area. Amenities include private phone booths, a locker storage space, and a small kitchen equipped with a coffeemaker, refrigerator, and seating.
The Hub will be staffed by the CEDRR team that includes Lyle Jepson, Tyler Richardson and Olivia Lyons, and a newly hired program director, Scott Graves, whose responsibilities will be focused on the launch of Startup Rutland and marketing The Hub’s other services.
“Scott brings a strong background in supporting business startups, as well as businesses that need to pivot their delivery of service due to a changing economic climate,” Jepson said. “He is a keen listener, one who can identify and effectively communicate strategies needed to take a business to the next level of success.”
On Monday evening, Graves, was ebullient as he related that his wife and two daughters are as excited as he is about moving from New Hampshire to Vermont.
In his remarks to the group, Graves said, “I am so very grateful that you are entrusting the stewardship of this project to me. I look forward to being a part of this community for a long time.”
Last week, during our interview, Foley, who is known for his quiet reserve, shared his buoyant optimism about the way forward.
“We now have all the elements in place to evolve The Hub into the destination of choice for an excellent workspace,” he said. “If we do our best, we’ll all have customers, the Hub will become the magnet for a vibrant downtown, and it will revitalize our community.”
Jepson’s parting comments were just as positive and far-reaching: “On the surface what you are witnessing is the commercialization and development of scalable technology at The Hub CoWorks. At a more fundamental level what you are seeing is the cultural transformation of a rural economy.”
If last Monday’s jubilant gathering was any indication, Rutland has an abundance of purpose, pride, and passion — not to mention, the brains, the courage, and the heart — to make The Hub a vital enterprise, in a bustling downtown, in a jewel of a community.
A place where, to paraphrase Margaret Mead, one should never doubt that a small group of thoughtful and committed Vermonters indeed can change the world.