Can coworking succeed in Delaware’s suburbs? A Wilmington developer is betting on it

Workers are in the final stages of construction on The Mill Concord, a co-working space built in the North Wilmington suburbs off Rt. 202. (Mark Eichmann/WHYY)

Workers are in the final stages of construction on The Mill Concord, a co-working space built in the North Wilmington suburbs off Rt. 202. (Mark Eichmann/WHYY)

Coworking is a big trend in office real estate these days, with workers from different small business sharing space in a loft-style office, often with short-term leases.

Robert Herrera has had big success running a coworking space in downtown Wilmington called The Mill. He’s confident the idea will be just as popular in a more suburban setting.

The Mill covers 30,000 sq. ft. in the historic Nemours Building that was once part of the DuPont Company’s massive office complex in downtown Wilmington. The Mill’s space is now home to small companies, start-ups, entrepreneurs, and Zip Code Wilmington, a coding school.

Herrera got his start in coworking by designing buildings for troubled coworking giant WeWork. He designed WeWork’s first space in New York, five floors in a lower Manhattan building. And while WeWork’s value has plunged from a high of $47 billion earlier this year, Herrera is confident in his plan to expand his own coworking concept into the Delaware suburbs along Route 202.

“Plain and simple, I think there’s a lot of people in north Wilmington that aren’t interested in going through the traffic and leaving their home, their comfort level in that office,” Herrera said. “But this is so easy and convenient to get to, there’s football fields worth of parking.”

In addition to ample parking — something no urban center can boast of — the suburban campus will offer workers a chance to stretch their legs and maybe even join in a game of volleyball on their lunch hour. “I would love this to grow into a tech-esque campus,” Herrera said. “A very exciting, energetic, innovative space where people want to be, laying on hammocks, working on their laptops or whatever, that’s something I could never do with other projects.”

There’s some new technology inside The Mill Concord that Herrera hopes can provide feedback about how to build an even better coworking space. Instead of a keycard, the office space can only be accessed via The Mill’s smartphone app. The app will also coordinate with beacons throughout the space to show what spots are popular and getting used, and where space could be repurposed.

“If we start noticing trends changing, why is that? Is that because our coffee machine was too loud, or we can pick up on trends and things that move differently,” he said.

Herrera emphasized that the data gathered will only be used to make the coworking space better for its users.

“I think it’s really creepy what some of the bigger companies are doing,” he said. “We are not doing that. We’re just tracking your work habits.”

He says it takes specific design elements to make coworking successful.

“Ultimately, it’s almost a social experiment. Like how do you make humans comfortable in a space?” Herrera said. “Humans crave contact with other humans. But there’s certain things they don’t like. We’re meeting right now and it’s OK that we look at each other when we’re talking. But if you’re working at a computer screen, you don’t like that somebody can see your eyes.”

To avoid that eye contact, The Mill is designed with privacy screens on the glass office walls. The coworking bar that extends through a common area is set at a specific height for the same reason.

One big part of the draw of coworking, Herrera said, is the flexibility it can provide for companies. “No company from the largest to the smallest knows where they’re going to be in five years. That’s the bottom line. They want to stay light and they’re willing to pay a premium to stay light and go month-to-month or year-to-year or even two to three-year leases, I think there’s a big market for that too.”

Even though The Mill Concord won’t be ready to open until 2020, it’s already 30% leased.

Herrera is already exploring the idea of exporting his concept to other cities, but plans to stay true to his Delaware roots. He’s eyeing expansion in cities like Pittsburgh or Nashville. In addition to office space in those spots, The Mill could offer help getting clients incorporated as Delaware companies to take advantage of the state’s “business friendly” tax and corporate governance environment. “I think that’d be powerful. It’s a win-win for everybody. And it’s one way for us to one-up the other coworking companies around that area.”

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