‘I believe that we’re creating a new social institution, a hybrid of a family and a church and a school and an office.” That’s how Darren McDaniel, the founding director of Urban ReThink, described the Thornton Park culture hub that opened in early 2011. Last Friday it was announced that the executive committee of the nonprofit Urban Think Foundation, of which Urban ReThink is just one initiative, had decided to shut it down. Currently scheduled events for August and September will go ahead as planned, but Urban ReThink will close its doors Oct. 1. It appears to be anybody’s guess whether UR will carry on in a new space, or without a space, and what aspects of their hybrid mission will continue.
The connection between co-working by day and cultural events at night was essential to Urban ReThink’s success in building cultural community. As McDaniel puts it, “The mission of Urban ReThink has been to gather and showcase the independent-minded, community-spirited people of Orlando in ways that produce intellectual community and economic development.” That included a monthly screening from the Global Peace Film Festival, a series of presentations focused on urban planning and civic engagement called Rethinking the City, and Collide*scope, a kind of brainstorm session between three thinkers from different disciplines for solving social problems. It also includes a tight-knit community of co-workers: UR rented desks, essentially, to individuals running small businesses who might need the formality of an office, but couldn’t afford an entire one. At one point the space enfolded a restaurant, the Spork Café. Lest all of this sound oh-so-intellectual, the gigantic motorized googly eyes on one wall and the annual Broomstick Pony Derby are emblematic of Urban ReThink’s unique brand of informality.
As hard as it is to pigeonhole, it would have been impossible to predict how crucial Urban ReThink’s mix of work and play has been in bringing disparate elements of Orlando’s cultural communities into the same orbit and in nurturing nascent artists and businesses. Every co-working space has its own identity, but ReThink stood out by being accessible to creatives outside the tech sector: writers, graphic artists, a nutritionist and a life coach have called UR home.
“The models work together: When you give freelancers the opportunity to, as they close down their work day, walk into an amazing networking situation or an innovative creative event – that’s needed,” says operations manager Shaina Anderson, hired in January 2013. “[But] the feedback that we’ve had from our members and from the community [reflects] that … the space is not conducive to hosting both.”
Though the company that owns the building, Craig Ustler’s Thornton Park Central LLC, asked for only nominal rent from the Urban Think Foundation, keeping the electricity on in a 2,000-square-foot loft full of computers was a challenge. Urban Think Foundation executive director Julia Young says, “The goal was to always be able to support the physical space with the activities that we did, with memberships, and room and event rentals. ... That’s what we did to pay our bills.” But, says Ustler (also the foundation co-chairman), “it was time to do something else with the space, and it was time for the foundation to focus on other things.”
The big questions are how did this idea-powered flying machine crash so abruptly, and where do the stunned passengers go next? The 34 co-workers currently conducting business there will need to find a new address, and there is no certainty that Urban ReThink will be renting it to them. When asked about the future of co-working as part of UR’s activities, McDaniel equivocates, “No part of it, do I think, is 100 percent that it could go one way or the other.” In-house programming that doesn’t require a physical space (like the Super Joy Riders, a band of superhero-costume-clad volunteers spearheaded by artist and UR program coordinator Brendan O’Connor) could continue uninterrupted. Popular literary events presented by outside groups such as Functionally Literate, Parcels: UCF
MFAs in Progress and There Will Be Words will no doubt find new locations. But part of the magic of Urban ReThink was its knack for bringing together all of this programming, along with its diverse group of co-workers and community members, under one roof.
Given the organization’s many partnerships and penchant for fanciful community-building, it seems out of character that there was no campaign to pull people together and keep the space open. Other spaces have been offered as a new home, but at a hastily scheduled town hall meeting last Wednesday, some co-workers voiced a sense of betrayal that the decision to close the space was made with no input from the small-business owners who inhabit the space daily – and pay rent that helped defray costs. It seems possible that event programming may continue, either in a new space or in various spaces, but the co-working model seems destined for the dustbin.
McDaniel, too, appeared surprised at how quickly the decision was made. “That’s the most disappointing thing about this for me – we didn’t have time,” he said sadly in response to an aggrieved co-worker. “The dream for me would have been to have this meeting a month ago and come up with ideas to make this work.” At the same meeting, though, McDaniel expressed some optimism: “We’re not closing the lid on this; we’re opening it wider.”