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Much More Than Office Space Co-working spaces like POOL Together and Coloft are helping entrepreneurs prosper through shared expertise and mutual support.

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Big-box businesses around the country are closing their doors, but some entrepreneurs are seizing a rare opportunity to capitalize on the vacant spaces left in their wake. It's a trend that at least one Meza, Ariz., real estate developer hopes will continue.

Brad Weinstock got the inspiration for POOL Together --a combination marketplace/small-business incubator--from other popular public markets and shared workspaces such as the Embarcadero in San Francisco, the Brewery in Los Angeles, and Pike Place Market in Seattle.

At its core, POOL Together is a business incubator. It offers local entrepreneurs affordable leases in a shared commercial space, and its owners provide assistance with business planning, marketing, space customization and cross-pollination as part of a comprehensive lease agreement.

Coloft: Work, Network, Prosper

"Rather than landlords, we're becoming partners," says Weinstock, POOL Together's CEO.

Slated for a soft opening on July 15, POOL Together is located in what was once a Mervyn's department store that closed down last year during the peak of the recession, and is undergoing a $3 million renovation. Weinstock says that approximately 50 percent of the space is already occupied, and he hopes to have at least 80 percent of it leased by the ribbon-cutting ceremony in mid-October.

Like POOL Together, the Coloft in Santa Monica, Calif., is a shared workspace that offers a similar support system to local entrepreneurs, and just like POOL Together, the Coloft is located in a previously occupied storefront that closed down due to poor economic conditions.

When co-founders Avesta Rasouli and Cameron Kashani first got the idea for Coloft, they decided to avoid the isolated and overpriced executive suites they leased out for previous business ventures and focus on a more community-oriented space. They couldn't find exactly what they were looking for, so they decided to create it.

The $60,000 renovation project on the 3,100-square-foot space was completely self-funded and features 43 workstations and two meeting rooms.

"Luckily, we didn't need to do a lot of construction," Rasouli says. "The layout was just very open with plenty of natural light--ideal for what we were trying to create."

Like Weinstock, Rasouli says that they are not in the business of renting out workstations or office space. "We're in the business of building local entrepreneurial communities, and it just happens that providing work spaces is an important part of that," Rasouli says. "I think what makes Coloft so great is all of the unique advantages, resources and opportunities that only arise as a result of being part of this like-minded community."

Whereas Coloft is focused primarily on providing work spaces, resources and networking opportunities for entrepreneurs, POOL Together provides its members with a space to actually operate their businesses.

In Mesa, a town still plagued by the ongoing recession, Weinstock sees POOL Together as an opportunity to breathe new life into the community. "We're really a destination," he says. "It's a city within the city. It's a place where the community can gather. There's something for everyone in the family."

Weinstock expects the space to eventually become a venue for ongoing events such as theatre productions, musical acts and a seasonal farmers market. Once the conversion is complete, the 41,000-square-foot building will feature minimal permanent infrastructure on the inside, allowing merchants to customize their space according to their diverse needs, but the main advantage for most merchants is the opportunity to take their business to the next level.

Aspen Renee, of Aspen Renee Flower Boutique, is just one example of a merchant who will be transitioning from a home-based business to the new commercial space at POOL. Renee says that it was the combination of the low-rent incentive and the comprehensive merchant support system provided by the POOL Together team that made the move possible for her.

"It's something I've always wanted to do," she says. "It's an amazing opportunity. The guys at POOL are so helpful, and their hearts are in the right place."

Renee is leasing a total of four spaces to accommodate her coolers and display units, all in an effort to offer full-fledged wedding and event services to her clients.

Mesa area resident George Pauli is another homebased business owner making the leap. Pauli accidentally stumbled upon POOL Together during an afternoon walk and decided to take a look inside. He soon became the very first merchant to sign a lease agreement.

"It was very rough. It was still under construction, but I couldn't stop thinking about it," Pauli says.

Pauli, who started his Great Embroidery business in his home in 1998, is transitioning smoothly into his new location with the help of the POOL Together team.

"They're good at doing things I'm not good at," Pauli says. "They want a very clean image--uniform throughout. They are very good at what they do."

The only real challenge Pauli is facing is having more visibility among his customers, but he welcomes the idea of a more public location as opposed to having clients come into his home to conduct business. "Now it's like a real job," he says.

One of the new opportunities that awaits Pauli and other merchants is the chance for cross-pollination with fellow vendors. For example, Pauli looks forward to providing customized embroidery on items purchased by patrons at clothing stores located inside POOL, and Renee sees the possibility of collaborating with jewelers and stationery stores.

For the long term, however, both Pauli and Renee have their sights set on something bigger. "This is definitely a stepping stone," Renee says. "I plan on eventually opening a second location. This is an opportunity to get my name out there."

For Pauli, the time he spends developing his embroidery business at POOL is part of his 5- to 10-year plan. "I'm not afraid to jump," Pauli says. "It's a matter of perspective. You have to be confident in yourself."

Weinstock understands that this is how a business incubator works, and as a real estate developer, he too hopes to expand this model to other cities around the country. "One of the goals is to be able to replicate this idea in other places," Weinstock says. "We've systemized as much of it as we can."

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