Group sees 1919 Vincennes theater becoming shared work space
VINCENNES, Ind. -- Officials with INVin nearly two years ago purchased the historic Pantheon Theatre in the hope of seeing its name in lights once again.
Originally built in 1919, the theater has fallen into a state of disrepair, but for many years it served as a center of entertainment, a hub of creativity for the young and old alike.
And INVin officials believe it can be once again.
They gathered dozens of community leaders and elected officials together Tuesday at Vincennes University to share their idea of seeing the 10,000-square-foot facility turned into a shared work space, something that has become very popular with millennials in the last five years.
INVin executive director Ellen Harper said there are already 35 of these small business incubators throughout the state, including one that just opened last week in Avon.
"This is the way the millennial generation is working," Harper said, "and we've got to be thinking about what we can do for them."
INVin has been working on the idea for months and even had the founders of similar - and highly successful - shared work spaces here Tuesday to speak to local officials. John Wechsler, the founder of Launch Fishers in Fishers, and Jason Tennenhouse, the founder of the MatchBOX Coworking Studio in Lafayette, spoke to the group about how shared work spaces can transform local economies by keeping young people - and their innovative ideas - in your community.
And they see tremendous potential, INVin founder Steve Miller said, in the Pantheon.
"They fell in love with the Pantheon," Miller said. "They really did."
Shared work spaces and small business incubators have gained popularity across the country because they give people who want to start their own businesses - but lack the financial resources to do so - a place to work and share ideas until they are able to branch out on their own.
Oftentimes designed as a cross between a library and a coffee house, the spaces allow business owners and entrepreneurs a chance to network, share ideas and mentor to one another. They share resources, space and even equipment.
Shared work spaces "attract and motivate people to open businesses," Miller said, and the result is a thriving economy, more wealth and brick and mortar businesses that provide much-needed tax dollars to struggling municipalities.
More business would also come as a benefit downtown; there are currently several empty buildings that need tenants..
Miller said he also sees the space as including training and conference facilities that could be used by existing businesses and organizations as well as new ones.
But it's a big commitment, Miller said, so he wanted to first reach out to the community's' "movers and shakers" to gauge their support.
There are many questions left to be answered, he said, such as where the funding would come from to renovate the theater and who would manage it once it's finished.
INVin, he said, isn't likely to do it.
"It's a broad commitment," Miller said. "We understand that. So we wanted to just inform the people here of what we saw as a real opportunity to meet some important objectives.
"We wanted to tell them, let them think about it, digest it and then get their feedback. Does it make sense for us to go forward? And can we put together a relevant and sustainable endeavor?"
Local real estate agent and developer Heath Klein, owner of Klein Realty and Auction, purchased the theater at a tax sale years ago and then sold it to INVin at the end of 2014. His dream was that it would be repurposed for some use, perhaps a grand restaurant, but the more he listened to INVin's plan Tuesday, the more he thought it could be just the thing needed to stimulate Vincennes' economy.
"I think this is something our community could really benefit from," he said, "It's been proven in Fishers and Lafayette to work. And it gives entrepreneurs the opportunity to work on an idea without a lot of investment on their part.
"It would be good for downtown, good for the community as a whole. Really, it's the best idea I've heard so far."
City council members Dan Ravellette and Shirley Rose also attended the group session, and each came away hopeful that the Pantheon could, after all these years, have a new life after all.
Ravellette said even if the space launched four or five new businesses, those were people who would then renovate buildings, buy houses, raise families and even hire employees.
"So, yeah, I think I like it," he said with a smile and a nod of his head.
Rose said she still had many questions about how it would all work - the concept is a new one, after all - but she liked the idea of doing something to keep young people - especially entrepreneurial-minded ones -right here at home.
"It's a good idea," she said, "great for millennials looking to make a start."
Most shared work spaces take on "members" who, in turn, pay some kind of rent, money that goes to help pay utilities and upkeep on the building.
Miller said he envisions using both Vincennes University and its budding relationship with Purdue University to attract young people who need not just a space to work but also networking opportunities to help them grow and reach their full potential.
The state is full, Miller said, of students who have completed business plans for a college course but never had the opportunity to put them to good use. Why not, he asked, recruit them to Vincennes?
"Communities are in competition with each other for people's interest, their money, places to live," Miller said. "And we think this is a concept that needs to be thoroughly explored, one that would be vital to creating new businesses and new opportunities for this county, especially on Main Street.
Another local group, one led by Tim Gognat, a Vincennes University alum who owns a geology-based consulting business, and Emily Bunyan, director of the Knox County Public Library, is looking at the possibility of using the library's Bloebaum-Fuller Outreach Building - one far smaller than the Pantheon - also as a shared work space. The two groups are working independently of one another.
Source: Vincennes Sun-Commercial, http://bit.ly/1pxTqlB
Information from: Vincennes Sun-Commercial, http://www.vincennes.com