Updated: Aug 19
Five hours driving distance from New York City, and just under two hours from Montreal, lies one of the most rural havens in the United States – The Adirondack Park. Six million acres of lush forests, bumbling creek beds, sprawling farmland, and 4,000-foot peaks stem from the banks of Lake Champlain, a body of freshwater separating northern New York and Vermont.
Dotted throughout the region are strings of Hamlet towns, each a micro-oasis of opportunity despite dwindling population and economic stagnation. While known as historic outposts, flush with 1800s architecture, these towns actually represent the future in an increasingly digital world.
Tucked along the Boquet River is a town called Whallonsburg, just a deer's run from a ferry that takes people across the lake toward Burlington, VT. But before hooking onto Route 22, there lies a juncture at Whallons Bay Road, a winding snake of double-yellow lined pavement that cuts through post-card worthy hills.
At the foot of this juncture lies Whitcomb's, a newly activated community center that serves as blueprint for what localized "Third Spaces" should strive to look like, as the remote work revolution untethers knowledge workers from city centers and "plugs in" rural economies across the country.
The necessity of building out this rural, Distributed Business District (rDBD) is something we covered in a prior post. And Whitcomb's is prime example of the requisite infrastructure we referenced.
A recent winner of an Excellence In Historic Preservation award from the Preservation League of NYS, the space is an entirely refurbished 1920s auto shop, with the deteriorating metal clad siding and rotted garage doors revamped with a new metal and wooden exterior, fresh coat of blue paint, and refurbished window trim. Watch a video highlighting the award here.
The fading auto sign no longer reads "Used-Cars-Trucks-Parts" but instead highlights "Whitcomb's – A Community Space" with new white lettering calling out "Workshops" and a "Studio + Store" and the namesake paying tribute to proprietor Clarence "Narni" Whitcomb, who ran it as a repair shop and used auto dealership from the 1950s-1990s. Elements of the original building were also integrated into the upgraded design.
It's the type of transformation that usually merely lives on pages buried in town hall files, with the most tangible output being a print-out rendering – maybe even pinned on the wall as a cautiously optimistic reminder of the vision.
The Whitcomb's rendering still exists, but instead hangs prominently in the hallway of the space it prophesied.
It's the first thing Teddi Rogers shows me when she takes me through Whitcomb's, and it's energizing to see as a visitor, much less how rewarding it is as one of the visionaries and volunteers that made it possible.
Teddi owns and operates Kit+Syl Studio and Store, which is a floral and jewelry boutique, and an anchor of Whitcomb's. Along with running her own business and being the creative lead, Teddi functions as the community manager for the space.
During early iterations of the project,
Whitcomb's was designed to be self-service, but it's far more activated with Teddi running operations, heading up marketing, and driving user validation and feedback to optimize the present and future programming. Teddi became involved with Whitcomb's when it opened last fall as she needed to find a new space to sell her handcrafted jewelry and curated floral pieces, because retail in the Adirondacks is largely seasonal, both in market demand and in the lack of year-round winterization of commercial spaces. But Whitcomb's isn't seasonal but rather a year-round incubator for five local artisans and businesses, including Kit+Syl. For Teddi, it's the accelerated realization of a personal 5-to-10 year plan she'd hoped to eventually replicate in the Champlain Valley after first seeing the model in Berlin. Whitcomb's exists due to a massive communal volunteer effort, namely the vision and project management work of the 501c3 non-profit Whallonsburg Grange Hall. Funding came from private donations, along with targeted state grants for adaptive re-use and economic revitalization as well as contributions from Cloudsplitter Foundation and the Essex Community Fund. Instrumental project volunteers included Andrew Buchanan (Vice President of Whallonsburg Grange Hall), project managers Jim Kinley and Schell McKinley, and Mark Hall of Hall Design Group. Teddi explained how Whitcomb's is really a beta test for seeing what works in this area, and envisions possible expansion in Whallonsburg as well as reproduction in other rural communities. It currently functions as a private-public structure, with local businesses paying accessible rent for private workspace, and the public having access to the commercial retail along with a community room.
Current businesses and local start-ups using the space along with Teddi include blacksmith and builder Mark Van Duser of Boquet Valley Forge, Joe Dinapoli of New Moon Pottery, and a woodworking space which is shared by homebuilder Sean Kullman – who owns The Hemlock Apologist – and Marcus Soto, who makes custom furniture under his brand Sojen Design.
The setup allows for makers to market their wares directly to the public in the retail portions of the space, while customers get a glimpse of the process. In an age of online shopping, seeing that process is important.
"There's a lot of convenience to online, but what's lost is community," Teddi says, "There's a lot of value in seeing the process and realizing why something's worth what it is and why it's worth it to buy local."
There's also value in having artisans under the same roof, with Teddi excited about the collaboration between Kullman and Soto, where the minimalist Japanese-Scandinavian furniture of Soto's Sojen Design can grace the homes Kullman crafts.
Teddi collaborates with Joe by pairing his pottery with her floral designs, which she creates using flowers she buys from locally-owned farms. A decade-spanning passion for flowers has grown into a passion for retail rooted in community. Along with her own hand-crafted jewelry inspired by a personal style Teddi calls "Organic Abstractions", she sells the goods of ten local artisans in Whitcomb's retail space.
The community room – a truly homey space, brought to life by a comforting fireplace and Teddi's own floral touches – is how Whitcomb's positions itself as a place to serve remote workers, with the room ripe for coworking.
The set of tables, lounge atmosphere, and free public WiFi enable both the local community and traveling digital nomads to click away at their keyboards as Van Duser hammers away at a sculpture in the next room.
This visual underscores the essence of Whitcomb's and why it's the quintessential model for a "Third Space" which is where people gather away from home or the office to create, connect, and collaborate.
The buzz word is coworking, but to truly provide value – especially in rural economies – any such incubator has to be more than the commodification of space or a venture-backed internet cafe.
It has to be more than a generic white-label business model mass produced in Silicon Valley and "shipped" to an affluent suburb just the same as it's implemented in a hamlet.
While transient travelers will certainly be a segment of the user market for these spaces, there must remain a tether to the community and diversification of value.
Airbnb's CEO Brian Chesky believes remote work will lead to a travel revolution, where people go on "workcations" and where work-from-home can be work-from-anywhere due to the rise in extended stay lodging supply beyond traditional hotels and the appetite for such nomadic behavior.
This is a signal to economically flat locales that people will be coming – user demand will be coming, especially to the hidden gems like the Adirondack Park. But for this type of year-round boost to the economy to be fully realized, remote work and unlocking geographical restriction can only go so far as the ecosystem allows.
Whitcomb's is a crucial part of that ecosystem. It provides that "Third Space" on the fly and its existence alone can give people confidence to let a weekend stay at a cabin in the Hamlet bleed into their work week or week(s). It certainly helps to know there's a place to integrate with the community and "plug in" when necessary.
Broadband access is the other critical component here. For now, Whitcomb's has the WiFi to support web-based work but not necessarily the computing power for robust telecommunication.
It's estimated that only 66 percent of rural areas have broadband capacity and even less have fiber optic level internet speeds. Closing the "Digital Divide" is going to be a pivotal driver in how viable it is for community-centric hubs to serve both local and visitor markets as a digital workplace.
But that's why it's even more important for rural coworking and community incubators to not lose the forest through the trees. The forest is empowering both local stakeholders and initiatives, all the while blending that with the cold brews sipped by remote work tourists – the ones who prefer real fall colors over their faux Zoom backdrops.
It also allows time for that particular "need" to develop. For now, Whitcomb's Community Room operates under a free, public model, where community-oriented use-cases include rotating art openings, live storytelling, and skill-based classes.
And how it evolves will be entirely tailored to community feedback.
As we reach the end of the tour, Teddi points toward 1.5 acres of greenspace between the industrial-style economic outpost and the Boquet River. She tells me it's going to become a public park.
Over the next few months, Whitcomb's is going to conduct outreach and see what exactly the community envisions for the reimagined space. What do they truly want?
"What does a public park mean to them?" Teddi says, enthusiastic about the possibilities.
What Whitcomb's already means to the community is transformative. And what the space can become a catalyst for in an increasingly hybrid and entrepreneurial world?
The possibilities warrant just as much enthusiasm.