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Franklin County applying for grant to develop coworking center in Rocky Mount

40 West Church Street

Franklin County has owned 40 West Church Street in Rocky Mount, pictured above in a photo associated with the property record, since 2007.

Franklin County is applying for grant funding to create an innovative coworking center and office space for individuals and small local businesses in downtown Rocky Mount.

In October, the county applied for a $1 million grant from the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission. If successful, the county would use the money to turn 40 West Church St. — currently owned by Franklin County — into a coworking center and office building.

A 2021 feasibility study — paid for by the town of Rocky Mount using a Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development grant — confirmed the suitability of 40 West Church St. and the demand for such a space.

“We have a significant shortage of commercial space,” Daniel Pinard, Rocky Mount cultural & economic development director, said. “We have very little office space currently available for rent and what we do have is often much larger than what businesses need, especially a startup business.”

A startup needs a desk or two, he said, rather than 1,000 or 2,000 square feet.

“That’s where this would fill that niche,” Pinard said.

The tentative plan for the Rocky Mount space is just that: tentative. However, similar projects in other localities — COgro in Blacksburg and the Southern Virginia Innovation Hub in South Boston, for instance — have informed the vision for the project.

“It’ll be about 70% dedicated office space — so you could rent an office per month — but then there will also be open desk space,” Beth Simms, Franklin County Economic Development Director, said. “About 20% of the space will be open desk space, and that’s where people can come in daily, weekly, monthly; whatever they choose.”

The remaining 10% would be used as flex or common space.

The county’s grant application placed strong emphasis on the value of having a physical place where small business owners can network.

“We don’t really have a space right now for business owners, entrepreneurs to come together just to bounce ideas off of each other. ... The one big thing we’re hoping [for] is collaboration. That’s what we’ve heard from the other [co-working centers]. ... That kind of stuff is invisible or immeasurable but we’re pretty confident it will happen if we provide this space,” Simms said.

Pinard said that also distinguishes the project from a miniature office park.

“There’s an actual, intentional program that’s designed to help a creative ecosystem,” Pinard said.

Pinard and Simms said they would expect the center to attract rural employees and businesses as well as those in town. The county is working to expand broadband in rural areas, but it will take several years; in the meantime, Simms and Pinard said, there is fiber internet in downtown Rocky Mount.

“This would allow people who live in an area that’s not currently served by broadband to come to town and also have ... an extra place outside of home, that way you have the separation of work and [personal] life,” Pinard said.

Simms said Tuesday evening that the commission has requested the county resubmit its application with additional information.

If it wins the grant, the county would have 12 months to identify matching funds. Rather than ask for local tax dollars, the county is looking into business sponsorships and grant funding, Simms said.

“We haven’t gotten all the way through this yet but we’re looking at applying for U.S. EDA funding or U.S. Rural Development funding ... for matching funds,” Simms said. “We’re trying to identify federal funds and state funds, and then if we do have to ask for local tax dollars for this project, it’ll be in this upcoming year’s budget process.”

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