When Matthew Wegener looks at the two-story brick building on the corner of 21st and Y streets he doesn’t see a run-down, cavernous structure ready for a wrecking ball.
Wegener sees a two-story building where small and start-up businesses and entrepreneurs can share office space, ideas and services under one big roof in an up-and-coming neighborhood.
He calls it an Idea Community, a place where young business professionals can focus on developing their companies instead of worrying about how to pay the rent and utilities.
Wegener also sees a coffeehouse, tentatively called “The Diesel Cafe,” on the first floor, and maybe a restaurant and possibly an addition to the building.
If Wegener sounds like a bit of a visionary, that’s because he is.
“We have high aspirations for this neighborhood,” he said. “It’s not much today. I think five years down the road it will be a different landscape.”
Why would he and his wife, Donna Gould, spend good money to buy an abandoned building in a blighted area?
The answer: The Antelope Valley Project.
Lincoln’s $238 million transportation, flood-control and urban revitalization project already is changing the area a few blocks to the west with new roads, channel improvements on Antelope Creek and recreational trails.
Wegener believes those changes will help transform the neighborhood and they want to be a part of the transformation — and maybe even help it along.
Antelope Valley redevelopment was the major reason the couple has decided to invest between $400,000 and $450,000 in the first phase of the project, scheduled to be completed by Aug. 1 and, additionally, $750,000 to $850,000 in Phase II.
The first phase is remodeling about 11,000 square feet into offices, meeting rooms and the coffee shop. Converting a large area, where limousines were once stored, into more office space and possibly a restaurant will be part of the second phase.
To help them reach their goal and to attract grant money and possibly corporate sponsors, the couple has formed Turbine Flats, a nonprofit group that will lease out space at little or no cost to new tenants, mostly software-related companies. Tenants will not only get a break on their rent and utilities but also will have access to high-speed Internet, accounting, marketing and legal services.
Wegener, president and CEO of ISoft Data Systems, plans to relocate his business — now at 324 S. Ninth Street — into the remodeled building as well as several of his current tenants. ISoft Data Services makes software programs for heavy equipment salvage companies.
Initially, Wegener hopes to have 10 businesses in the building. The first three tenants will be:
Allied Strategy, which makes software programs for insurance companies.
Professional Environmental Solutions, developers of software that helps companies manage feedlots to ensure compliance with EPA regulations.
Play Creative, a new company that will initially help tenants develop logos and provide other marketing services.
The 25,000-square-foot building at 2124 Y St. was built around the 1920s as a machine shop. Over the years it housed a credit union and a limousine company.
Wegener, 32, has a passion for entrepreneurship and points to the success of Agile Sports Technologies, another company that once shared space in the same building as ISoft Data Systems and he says is now making it big. Agile Sports develops “play-by-play” software used by coaches.
A board of directors will oversee the nonprofit Turbine Flats Project. In addition to Wegener and Gould, other board members include: Colby Thomson, who is with Allied Strategy; Lincoln attorney Nichole Bogen; and Jason Ball, director of the Lincoln office of the Nebraska Business Development Center, a cooperative venture of the Small Business Administration and the University of Nebraska at Omaha. An accountant will be added at a later date.
“I think it has the potential to be really influential in providing some stability in the early stages of getting a business going,” said Ball, who agreed to serve on the board because of his expertise in helping companies develop business plans to obtain financing.
Ball said the “incubator” concept, in which start-up businesses and entrepreneurs share office space and services, has great potential.
The University of Nebraska Technology Park has an incubator on its site.
Ball said the Turbine Flats Project fits into a larger picture of what is going on in Lincoln’s economic development.
“This likely will dovetail well with the 2015 (Vision group’s) development project,” Ball said.
Wegener said he chose to go the nonprofit route to keep the focus on helping businesses get started instead of trying to profit from them.
“I think Lincoln needs to have a paradigm shift and focus on building from within,” he said.
Too often, Wegener said, large companies come into a city, stay for 10 years and leave town. He believes investing in entrepreneurs and helping small businesses grow is a better way to go and more beneficial in the long run to a community.
It also may also help slow down the “brain drain” that Lincoln and other Nebraska towns and cities are facing.
Reach Algis J. Laukaitis at 402-473-7243 or firstname.lastname@example.org.