Ward 4—the Milwaukee co-working space inspired by the likes of 1871 in Chicago, CoCo in Minneapolis, and T-Rex in St. Louis—opened this week. Now, it’s up to organizers to ensure Ward 4 turns into the catalyst they envision for the local startup community.
Ward 4 appears to be off to a good start. Nearly all of the private offices have been leased, and a few individuals have also signed up for the open co-working section that features 66 unassigned “hot desks,” according to officials with CSA Partners, the two-year-old venture fund that launched Ward 4 and is managing it.
CSA is backed and co-managed by Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele, who also provided funding to launch Ward 4. The for-profit operation hasn’t taken any public funding or grants, CSA says.
So far, Ward 4 tenants include startup accelerator Gener8tor, Gener8tor grad Bright Cellars, The Firm LLC, law firm Quarles & Brady, and CSA.
The roughly 37,000-square-foot space (see photos above), located on the second floor of the Historic Pritzlaff Building near downtown, will also host startup events, including the weekly 1 Million Cups coffee chats and this weekend’s Launch Milwaukee hackathon.
“We thought we’d have to build more of the interest” in Ward 4, CSA managing director Pat Farley says. “I think there’s a desire, even more so than we thought, for this type of space.”
Similar co-working spaces and incubators have been popping up around the U.S. in recent years—a sign of the increased emphasis on entrepreneurship and boost in venture capital investments coming out of the recession.
When CSA launched in 2013, there were signs of a growing startup community in Milwaukee, “but it felt a little isolated,” managing director Brian Taffora says.
CSA officials toured co-working spaces around the country to craft the plan for Ward 4. The idea is to create a hub for startups; skilled software developers or other freelancers who might consult for—and maybe get hired by—those startups; investors; and business service providers. “Our thought was if we could build one of these, we could get more people working together, focusing, and collaborating,” Taffora says.
CSA and Ward 4 tenants describe it as potentially having a “lighthouse effect” that draws entrepreneurs and helps foster a stronger startup community. That’s already starting to play out: Bright Cellars was founded by MIT grads, but after the Genere8tor program, they decided to put their headquarters in Milwaukee instead of Boston.
No doubt that decision was helped by the fact that Bright Cellars is now located down the hallway from both Gener8tor and CSA, its lead investor. But Bright Cellars co-founder and CEO Richard Yau says he was also excited to “be on the ground floor” of what CSA is building at Ward 4. And he thinks Milwaukee has the ingredients for a healthy startup ecosystem.
“Milwaukee is not a huge high-tech entrepreneurial hub yet,” Yau says, seated in his new digs. “But it has the spirit. There’s talent here.”
Indeed, Bright Cellars has already hired a former employee of Epic Systems, the electronic health records software giant based near Madison, WI, and a recent University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate who turned down a job offer on one of the coasts, according to Taffora and Farley.
Ward 4 could also attract Chicago startups that want to open an office in Milwaukee, because the space is located a couple blocks from the Amtrak station that is just a 90-minute train ride from downtown Chicago. One Windy City startup has already started renting space in Ward 4, Taffora says.
In scouting startups around the Midwest and elsewhere, Gener8tor co-founder Joe Kirgues has seen “the power and impact of facilities such as 1871 and CoCo.” He thinks Ward 4 can similarly be a “center of gravity for entrepreneurs, startups, investors, and other technologists,” he says.
Ward 4 aspires to be the same kind of buzz-generating, central startup space that is envisioned for the planned StartingBlock project in downtown Madison, where Gener8tor has said it would locate its Madison operations. “We see them as twin efforts,” Kirgues says of StartingBlock and Ward 4. “It’s a chance to put bookends on the innovation economy in Wisconsin.”
Still, Ward 4 isn’t the first attempt to create a co-working space in Milwaukee that can help align the startup community. Startup Milwaukee, the local networking group, launched the 96square co-working space in the downtown Blatz Wash House in 2013—and it also specifically compared itself with Chicago’s 1871.
Like Ward 4, 96square houses startups and a venture fund, the Wisconsin Super Angel Fund, but the office is smaller (12,000 square feet) and doesn’t have any open desks. 96square currently houses around 20 startups and is near capacity, says Matt Cordio, a co-founder of Startup Milwaukee and 96square and a co-organizer of Launch Milwaukee.
Cordio doesn’t view Ward 4 as direct competition for 96square because he says they have slightly different offerings aimed at different customers.
“I view it as great that there’s more startup space coming online,” he says. “It really does show that the startup community is growing here.”