SOMERSET – When marketing pro Emily Korns and her family moved back home to Somerset in 2010, she began working remotely for companies based in big cities many miles away.
The frustrations she dealt with during those years gave rise to the idea that became Uptown Works – a shared office space that opened in 2018 in the heart of Somerset’s uptown district, she said.
“I was constantly bouncing around, looking for offices or working from home, and I would have to furnish the office and pay for the utilities, and I was usually stuck off by myself somewhere,” she said. “I thought, ‘There must be a better way.’ “
During business trips to places such as New York City and Washington, D.C., Korns occasionally utilized co-working spaces such as those run by the corporation WeWork, and she eventually decided to bring that big-city convenience to her hometown.
“I just felt like it could work in Somerset,” she said, “because I think there are a lot of people here that work from home or could be working in a place like this. I did the market research and found this space, and that’s how it came to be.”
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Founding Uptown Works, located in a historic brick building at 109 E. Main St., made Korns the Somerset County Chamber of Commerce’s 2018 Entrepreneur of the Year.
In announcing the award, chamber officials said that Korns “breathed new life into Somerset’s historic uptown district with the opening of Uptown Works.”
“Not only has her forward-thinking vision transformed and repurposed a vacant space in the heart of her community,” the award announcement read, “Korns’ efforts and leadership have opened the door for economic growth in Somerset County while already having a positive economic impact on uptown businesses.”
According to its website, uptownworks.co, Uptown Works offers its members the standard amenities of a modern office, including high-speed internet service, professional development events such as Toastmasters, office supplies, a kitchenette and equipment for printing, copying and scanning.
Among the spaces available to members are lounge areas, open desks, reserved desks, private offices with doors, meeting rooms, a quiet room for coding and editing, a call booth, a soundproof booth for recording voice-overs and broadcasting, a craft studio with storage and a discreet meeting space for counseling and similar interactions.
‘A community’ formed
Korns believes that what makes Uptown Works important is the camaraderie that has begun to form among the professionals – telecommuters, freelancers, independent contractors and others, from industries as diverse as health care, real estate and finance – who come there to work alongside each other.
“I think, ultimately, what makes people come here and stay – we haven’t lost a member yet, in six months – is (that) a community has really formed here,” she said. “We have lots of different networking events ... so people can build their professional development. You can really come here and find a professional home. It’s a really lovely place to come and work, and it’s a nice community of people.”
That sense of community has helped keep Uptown Works up and running in the months since its opening.
“We’ve had so many people help us out, and that’s what’s been super-awesome,” Korns said. “It really feels like a community here.”
The Somerset native started out as a dietitian working in the public health field in Pittsburgh, then got a master’s in business administration and transitioned to a communications role. Later, she moved with her husband to New Jersey to work in public relations for Mars Inc., the food company.
She has also worked for General Nutrition Centers and Gerber Products Company and as an independent consultant.
Coincidentally, during the same week last summer that Uptown Works opened to the public, Korns started a new day job as Conemaugh Health System’s director of marketing communications. With two jobs and three young children to juggle, she’s often working from dawn to dusk and beyond, she said.
Laura Bowser, Uptown Works’ community manager, who is there in person on weekdays, handles much of the co-working space’s day-to-day business.
“I try to talk to Laura every day,” Korns said, “usually during lunch, just to check in, see how things are going, see if she needs me to troubleshoot anything. … I do most of my work at night for Uptown Works. I have three little kids, so I put them to bed and start doing Uptown Works stuff. It’s challenging. It works, but it’s been interesting.”
Historic and modern
During a recent tour of the one-time Arlington Hotel, which was built around 1890, Korns provided a quick rundown of the building’s colorful history. Not just a hotel, it has been an apartment building, a paint store, a drug store and the World’s Attic Thrift Shop.
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Korns said it has survived at least two fires over the years.
Korns recalled a conversation she had with Regina Coughenour, executive director of Somerset Inc., when her plans to create a co-working space in Somerset were nebulous: “She said, ‘You’ve got to go check out the World’s Attic building. I think it’ll be perfect.’ She said, ‘The bones of this place are really good. … It has this beautiful ceiling. It has an elevator. I think you’re going to love it.’
“She brought me through one day, and she was right. … You could see the ceiling and just know that it was a pretty special building.”
During a six-month renovation project, during which workers scraped off “130 years of wallpaper,” Korns said every effort was taken to maintain the building’s historic character and its original aesthetic.
Still, it’s been thoroughly updated to meet the needs of today’s white-collar workers – high-speed web access included – and made to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“It has all the modern conveniences,” Korns said, “but the look and feel, even the color palette, we kind of went back to that era. … We tried to keep and preserve as much as we could.”
Exposed brickwork and what appeared to be an original stamped tin ceiling are juxtaposed throughout the building with modernities such as a bank of laptop computers, a kitchen area with stainless steel appliances and a statue of the brown M&M character. Much of the art on the building’s walls has been borrowed from Laurel Arts, a Somerset nonprofit arts organization, as part of an “art-on-loan program,” Korns said.
The building’s location on uptown Somerset’s “diamond,” at the busy intersection of Main Street and Center Avenue, brings plenty of walk-ins, Korns said, including both potential Uptown Works members and residents who remember the building from “back in the day” and are pleased to see it given new life.
“It’s a great spot to be in,” she said. “We couldn’t get that kind of foot traffic if we were outside of uptown.”
Korns hopes the fact that people often walk in off the street will help spread the word about Uptown Works to more people.
“Our biggest challenge right now,” she said, “is that people still don’t know what we are in here. They walk in – ‘Is it a restaurant? What is it?’
“Co-working is new to Somerset, so it’s kind of hard to explain to people. The more people we get to walk in the door so that we can show them around and explain what we do, the better.”
To that end, she’s planning to install new signage outside the building – one of a number of plans she’s made for in 2019.
Also, Korns plans to convert the third floor of the building into a furnished apartment that she could lease on a short-term basis. The building’s basement, which was once used as a pool, is more of “a long-term project,” she said, floating tentative plans to finish the space and lease it to a business.
“2019 is about membership growth,” she said. “We’re going to be actively looking for people to fill our offices and join our groups. We want to get as many people in here as possible to learn about it.”
As of early February, Uptown Works had about 25 members, Korns said, adding that she’s hoping to reach 60 members by the end of 2019.
“Co-working is the future,” she said, “so I’m really proud of Somerset for embracing us, because there’s not a lot of co-working spots in rural communities.
“I think we’re really setting ourselves up for success as a community.”