The Development of Troy Innovation Garage
In just a few years, Troy Innovation Garage has become an integral part of the startup ecosystem in Upstate New York. The mix of amenities that a coworking space offers businesses, combined with a healthy mix of programs and connections, is a perfect complement to many other activities happening in Downtown Troy, around the Capital Region, and the State.
The development of this new space and the rehab of the old building in the center of Downtown Troy was hard, and it took every skill I had. So sharing this journey might be interesting to others looking to make a similar mark in their own communities.
22–24 4th Street, Troy NY
The building I found for my newest venture sat mostly vacant for 30 years and was built in 1872. I wanted a big old building to bring back to life and put my mark on, while paying homage to the history. I was determined to turn this building, which once housed a dealership and garage for Pierce-Arrow Automobiles in the early 20th century, around and into a flagship location for coworking and business incubation that could rival any space around the country. The goal was to develop a place that could really help businesses beyond simply trying to get fees for real estate space or rent desks and chairs. I had started and grew my own successful creative business, Gramercy, so a lot of what we focused on doing is borne out of those experiences.
In November, 2015 I was handed the keys to 22–24 4th Street in Downtown Troy after closing on the sale of the building and the corresponding bank loans. I had made the decision to buy the mostly vacant 14,000 square foot building in July and waded my way through a myriad of complexities and due diligence that go with buying a commercial property.
The months between putting the building under contract in July and the November closing gave me an opportunity to bake out my plans to build and brand Troy Innovation Garage, part-coworking/part-incubator, to serve the creative and tech sectors in the Capital Region of New York. In three months I toured 25 coworking spaces, incubators and accelerator programs, talked to dozens of people involved with spaces and in and around startup economies.
The perfect mix of skills?
For 20 years I’ve been a public relations and marketing professional. For 15 of those 20 years I’ve specialized in economic development, starting with my work for an organization directly involved with the redevelopment of Lower Manhattan after 9/11. My clients in real estate and redevelopment projects have been varied — industrial, destination retail, downtown apartments, suburban office, as well as municipalities and economic development agencies. The reason it made sense to buy a building in the first place was because I had helped so many clients launch or expand their development projects, and had been deeply involved with urban revitalization and downtown planning. And through my work, had built a decent number of connections in business and in government around New York State that we could connect members to to help them on their own journey.
In many ways this background was a perfect fit for this new endeavor. But in other ways, it created a lot of blind spots for me too. In hindsight, I simply was not fully prepared to take on a commercial project. I had flipped several multi-family houses, which meant I knew just enough about construction to know when to call someone to help me. I envisioned an approach to this new project like the 1859 Greek Revival I turned into first-rate apartments. But the 4th Street project was way more complex than a few apartments.
$600,000 over budget
The first challenge was the scale of the cleanout of the building. Just to underscore how little I was prepared for, I envisioned spending the first Saturday polishing off a lot of the needed cleanup and demolition with a group of friends. I spent that first Saturday taking down about 10% of the first layer of drop ceiling, only to find that three more layers of ceiling existed to get the whole old industrial space exposed. Decades of renovations had just meant more layers. I budgeted for 10 dumpsters but ended up using 100!
The design of Troy Innovation Garage was driven by the things I was seeing and hearing from other places I was visiting. Our architects (the amazing Scott Townsend and his team at 3t) were doing drawings as I was touring and we made changes based on the things I thought were best practices.
This project was bootstrapped, and our $400,000 construction budget ended up ballooning to over $1 million. I had to inject my own capital to make the project work. It was not easy pulling together $600,000 in a few months time. On top of the construction costs for the building, we had to also invest in the startup of a new business — from staffing to operations to furnishings. Those were some really, really tight months as we figured out how to finish the project and launch the new venture successfully.
Invest in community and team over designer furniture
The biggest takeaway from all of my travels and research was that the quality of the community being built, the human capital, meant more than buying brand name furniture. Our first members moved in and started to work among hammers, saws and drills. They endured us removing our storefront during the coldest month of northeast winter. These early adopters cared about the community and valued what we were creating for and with them. They were also startups, patient as we figured things out and worked out concepts and processes with their feedback.
The investment in people starts with a Community Manager and proper staffing. I am still amazed when we walk into a coworking space and no one greets us. These places are always as cold and desolate as the front desk. We infused retail theory melded with a hospitality mindset. I had worked as a kid in retail stores, including GAP and in restaurants when I lived in Washington, DC. So we train our community management team as if they were working at a retail store or a restaurant — Greet, Approach, Inform, Thank. Seems basic to me but tons of places miss this personal and interested touch. The team needs to be committed to serving others and our community.
I’m not slamming hip furniture brands, but we’ve been to so many spaces that try too hard to be cool. Our mantra was don’t be a poser and try to buy coolness. Just actually be cool.
Building a brand and introducing a new concept
It has been as thrilling to build and launch the Troy Innovation Garage brand and business as it was to revitalize the building. The operations and community management, recruiting a diversity of members, building a marketing machine, connecting the Garage to the statewide ecosystem and building partnerships with regional and state groups and higher education programs, holding over 100 events including our own signature programs, and connecting our members to our home community and seeing how they have impacted life in Downtown Troy.
Governor Andrew M. Cuomo today announced the grand opening of the Troy Innovation Garage, a co-working space and business incubator in Downtown Troy. The $1.5 million project was supported by a $100,000 grant from Empire State Development as well as a $50,000 Main Street Development Grant from National Grid. The Garage is specifically aimed at incubating, accelerating, fostering and growing creative economy companies in Upstate New York.
“Our investments to revitalize downtown Troy support a thriving business community, and this new incubator will help keep this momentum going,” Governor Cuomo said. “The Troy Innovation Garage will support emerging businesses, create jobs and drive economic growth and activity that will have ripple effects throughout the Capital Region.”We have made Troy Innovation Garage a known entity in Upstate New York, especially in the Capital Region. We attracted the attention of state leaders, and Governor Andrew Cuomo and Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul helped us to open the Garage.
We have made Troy Innovation Garage a known entity in Upstate New York, especially in the Capital Region. We attracted the attention of state leaders, and Governor Andrew Cuomo and Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul helped us to open the Garage.
Our “ecosystem” model is a unique approach to coworking
We’ve now toured 75 spaces around the United States and in Canada. There is no doubt to us that what we are doing here in the small city of Troy, NY is as good as anything else being done, even in the cities most recognized for progressive attitude towards startups. Our startups are starting to percolate and spin out of here. The connections we have made and then in turn brought to the Capital Region. The Garage is a great platform for our members beyond a place to work and collaborate.
We have a commitment to play a role in leading and growing startup and small private business sectors in New York. In Troy, there is a blossoming software and video game sector that now play a key support role. We are a key player in the growth of the regional creative economy. And in New York’s Capital, government is big business. Private sector companies need to be in Albany, and there is a lack of flexible workspace, so I opened a second space there called the Bull Moose Club, which shares operations and ownership with Troy Innovation Garage, and is located directly across the street from the State Capitol building. This is the next chapter of my journey and I’ll cover it in more detail in the future.
Aurelius Coworks, which wholly owns Troy Innovation Garage and Bull Moose Club Albany, was created to do even more. It’s definitely a tough juggling act to own my statewide PR firm Gramercy and own and operate these communities. But I recruited and trained the right team to make sure it’s possible and they all are high performing businesses.
What’s next? Opening more spaces in similar cities with potential (we are looking at about 10 opportunities right now in New York and around the Northeast), teaming with others working to make an impact and give back to their community, or consulting to help someone execute as well as we have.