William Weinstein, left, founder of the Center of Excellence, works in an office in Portland that overlooks the spaces he leases to small businesses and entrepreneurs who want the benefits of office space without the high cost. Small businesses lease workspace within COE's suite and enjoy conference rooms and networking with like-minded lessees. - AP

Cut-rate cubicles

PORTLAND — Portland entrepreneurs, freelancers and startups can't usually afford fancy offices, but many don't want to work at home, either — dog hair on the couch doesn't exactly scream professionalism.

For a growing number, the solution is a shared workspace, which provides the fringe benefits of a big office at a lower cost (sometimes less than $200 a month). Proponents of co-working, as it's called, say they like the camaraderie, the separation of career and home, and the choice of atmosphere and price.

Peggy Lind arrived this month at NedSpace, a new downtown Portland operation geared to entrepreneurs. After a 13-month job hunt, Lind says, she decided to "take control over my own life" and start a design company.

She has worked from home before but not this time.

"People can come to my office. It legitimizes my business."

In the purest sense, co-workers share office space — sometimes even desks. They often pay a monthly membership fee rather than sign a long-term lease. And networking can be as big a draw as the conference room.

Portland got a taste of co-working more than two years ago, when Souk opened in Old Town and CubeSpace in Southeast Portland.

At CubeSpace, a 13,000-square-foot expanse overlooking Grand Avenue, members plunk themselves at bays of desks or hang out in the cafeteria, which features a Wii, a massage chair and bins of snacks.

When revenue flatlined last year, husband-and-wife founders Rabbi David Kominsky and Eva Schweber tapped into another opportunity: acting as contractors for high-tech projects. They already helped put together teams informally, with about two-thirds of their members working in technology.

Portland's unconventional workspaces range from shared desks to renovated office buildings aimed at small, creative companies. Portland is a prime freelance market, Schweber says. Lots of smart people move here for the lifestyle, but not all of them find work at large companies.

Freelancing, however, gets lonely.

"You take the way of life in Portland and you take freelancers, and there's a disconnect," Schweber says. "These are people who want to be social."

CubeSpace hosts evening events, including technology clubs and Beer & Blog gatherings. Schweber and Kominsky sometimes sweep through at 9:15 p.m. — quarter-past quitting time — and urge the crowd to move to a bar.

Workplaces provide fellowship that used to come from places of worship, Kominsky says. So it makes sense that even high-tech workers seek out old-fashioned companionship.

"The person who knows the most about your mother moving into a nursing home is in the cubicle next to you," he says.

Several vintage Portland buildings have been renovated recently, blurring the line between co-working and traditional offices. Small creative entrepreneurs have office doors, but they share common areas and, sometimes, business. Michael Tevis and his wife toured the Ford Building on a rainy day in December 2004, scouting a Portland project for their California-based company, Intrinsic Ventures. The one-time auto plant was run down and mostly empty, but Tevis envisioned a home for grassroots companies.

Four years and an $8 million renovation later, the 104,000-square-foot, red-brick building on Southeast Division Street houses dozens of companies, from a pet store and a clothing boutique to design firms, photographers and an art gallery.

Tevis allows month-to-month leases, and he has negotiated rent for artwork. You can bring your pet or drop in at midnight. But don't mess with the vibe.

"I won't allow people to put down floor covering; I won't allow you to drop a ceiling," says Tevis, who visits Portland often. "This isn't for attorneys and accountants. I won't reject them, but they have to be kind of hip."

When Tevis fills the just-finished basement and several other vacancies, he'll have 100 tenants. Most landlords don't want to manage that many leases, Tevis says, and they earn more from a few big tenants.

But Portland doesn't have many 104,000-square-foot tenants. Plus, there is less financial risk if you lose one small tenant.

Kevin Kaufman, a CB Richard Ellis broker who leases the Ford Building, says the recession has been a mixed bag for Portland creatives. One tenant moved to the basement, where space rents for 50 cents a square foot — about half the upstairs rate. But several newcomers moved in, too.

When Julie Duryea opened Souk 21/2; years ago, cafes were the only choice for most freelancing Portlanders. She couldn't find many co-working spaces beyond New York and London.

Now, her Old Town operation hosts an eclectic crowd: a footwear and apparel consultant, a strategic planner, a retail designer. Plus, Souk has company in the Portland market.

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