Hoping to capitalize on a homegrown, entrepreneurial Renaissance, the new Westport Commons project will soon house what’s being billed as the largest coworking studio on earth.
Kansas City Sustainable Development Partners has partnered with Lenexa-based coworking studio Plexpod to redevelop the 160,000 square-foot Westport Middle School into a coworking space. The school — located on the south side of Kansas City’s 39th Street, just three blocks east of Main Street — has been vacant since 2010, but has the promise to deliver an economic and entrepreneurial jolt to the center of Kansas City, Plexpod founder Gerald Smith said.
Smith said the space will feature an array of amenities for entrepreneurs and the community as a whole, including office space, a business incubator, access to investors, an event space, a maker’s studio and more.
“I never thought I’d be a part of a project making the world’s largest coworking studio,” Smith said. “From day one, our intention was to create something that really was part of a growing industry and trend. I recognized that several years ago. … The fact that this is in Kansas City it doesn’t surprise me at all. Kansas City is perfect for this kind of venture. We hope that the entrepreneurial community will support it and rally around it.”
David Brain, a member of KC Sustainable Development Partners, said at the Enterprise Center of Johnson County’s Venture Lounge event Tuesday that the growing trend of coworking spaces is already alive and well in Kansas City. The Kansas City metro area features 11 coworking spaces in operation, but he said that none will come close to rivaling the amenities and size offered at the Westport Commons project. He said that given current trends, Kansas City needs about 500,000 square-feet of coworking space to accommodate independent workers.
“This will create a whole new generation of office space,” said Brain, who previously served as CEO of the multi-billion-dollar company Entertainment Properties Trust. “Kansas City has 11 coworking spaces but only two are more than 25,000 square-feet or bigger. Most are about 5,000 square-feet. There’s nothing to the scale of this type. … If you do the math on a thumbnail basis the metro area should have 500,000 square-feet for this type of model. We don’t have anything near that.”
Construction on the middle school is already underway, Brain said. He expects phase one of the project — which focuses exclusively on Westport Middle School — to be wrapped up in the winter of 2016. In total, redevelopment of the 360,000 square-feet at Westport Middle School and Westport High School will cost about $23 million.
The middle school’s 160,000 square-feet of space is flooded with natural light and boasts 55 classrooms, two gyms, an auditorium and a cafeteria. Smith said that in addition to its various amenities, Westport Commons will offer an avenue for investors to connect more directly with startups and entrepreneurs. While uncertain if that will entail actual office space for venture capitalists or angel investors, Smith said that incorporating access to growth capital is an important part of the project.
“We’ve pursued trying to learn what else is emerging out there and we’ve found a couple of venture capital groups that are working on new models where they would exist inside one of these models,” he said. “It’s a huge part of it. Talk to anyone in this industry and that engagement is a significant component of it.”
Bob Berkebile, a partner of Sustainable Development Partners, previously said that Westport Middle and High Schools will serve as a center for innovation and catalyst of revitalization. Berkebile poetically refers to the project as an effort in urban acupuncture.
“Like acupuncture, it’s knowing where to put that needle,” Berkebile previously said. “It’s a very strategic, thoughtful decision to invest time, energy and resources in this place because of its location and because of all its rich characteristics.”
Among the many amenities, Westport Commons will feature:
- Several “flex desk” spaces, offering coworkers the option to move around
- A maker space to create digital materials for businesses’ marketing or media
- Dedicated team work-spaces
- Private individual offices
- Common areas
- Meeting rooms
- Event spaces for small or large groups
- Technology support
- A health and fitness center
- Game rooms
- Food and beverage areas