On a Friday morning in June, 122 ½ N. Broadway is hopping. Teams work together around tables, while solo workers stand at desks made of reclaimed wood. Work by local artists covers the walls, while Hawaiian music (to fit the Hawaiian Shirt Day theme selected by Emerging Prairie’s interns) and the scent of coffee permeate the air.
One year ago the location, in the wake of a sudden departure by coworking space CoCo, was left bare. Emerging Prairie program director Annie Wood saw an opportunity in its bright blue walls and open floor plan.
“We really believed that coworking could add value to Fargo, if we did it in a way that made sense to the community,” Wood, fondly known as the ‘Den Master’ said. “This space needs to feel like it’s for Fargo, by Fargo, and meeting Fargo’s needs.”
What Fargo needed was a place for meetup groups to gather and for freelancers to call their own. It needed a coat of paint, an infusion of art, and a spirit of community– and on July 6, 2015, the Prairie Den opened its doors to the public.
One year ago:
Today, July 6, 2016:
“There’s a lot of signs of life”
For those who have been with the Den from the beginning, the last year has been one of transformation.
Jenni Huotari is a partner at Eide Bailly, one of the Den’s earliest supporters. She recalls the early days as “rummage sale-ish,” all mismatched furniture and lifeless walls. Now, Huotari and her coworkers office out of the Den on days that require a boost of creative energy that they can’t get from a formal office.
“There’s always a lot of foot traffic,” Huotari said. “There’s a lot of signs of life.”
Modeled after a university’s student union, the Prairie Den is an office for all. It has grown into a home to four full-time teams– Emerging Prairie, Hash Interactive, Tellwell, and PuPaPo– and more than 140 members, ranging from a DJ with a funeral webcasting service to a local pastor with a fledgling church. In one year, the Prairie Den has even graduated an alumni team; CoSchedule’s Fargo team started off in the Prairie Den and grew so much they moved to a larger office last November.
“It’s a great place to work in the sense of collaboration… They’re not all tech-based entrepreneurs,” said Brent McNeal, a pastor at Sojourn Church in Dilworth, who traded in his usual office (Starbucks) for the coworking space just a few days after it opened. “As a pastor, I’m kind of more like an ‘entrepreneur in the spiritual world.’”
McCal Johnson, a local artist, has also worked out of the Prairie Den since its humble beginning. This summer, she has transformed the Den’s dull white conference room into a vibrant gathering space. Along one wall, as an homage to the Den’s more tech-fluent members, runs a stream of binary code. Opposite, a drone (the stork of the future) carries a baby above rolling blue mountains while the baby himself clutches a Prairie Den coffee mug and an issue of Fargo Monthly magazine. The room is Johnson’s way of giving back to the Den and its members.
“One of my favorite parts of the creation process is being able to invent up ideas and then discuss them with others, and there’s such a diverse group of people at the Prairie Den that encourage that process,” she said. “I hope that I encourage their own processes too.”
Collaboration, not competition
For those new to coworking, there is often a fear that members on similar missions may run into conflict. This is a fear that Max Kringen, founder and CEO of social media marketing agency Tellwell, felt when his team moved in just feet away from web development and design startup Hash Interactive.
“From all perceptions, they should be a competitor,” Kringen said. “But what has happened is, in recognizing their strengths and then recognizing our strengths, we’ve been able to start collaborating on projects rather than competing against each other, which then just kind of grows the legitimacy of each organization.”
And Troy Henne, one of the founders of Hash, agrees.
“Contrary to belief, it’s actually good,” he said. In a space like the Prairie Den, “you find more overlap and opportunity to work together than you do competition.”
According to Huotari, this kind of coworking can help strengthen not just individual businesses, but our city as a whole.
“It helps communicate and solidify the message of collaboration, which I think is really a key business function,” she said. “For us to all be Fargo- based companies, we want each other to be successful, and finding ways where we can come together to positively influence each other is beneficial.”
Work hard, play hard
While there is certainly a lot of work being done at the Den, there’s also a lot of fun being had. Every month, McNeal plans a birthday party complete with piñatas, goodies from local bakeries, and a bit of friendly competition (June’s game of rubber band archery got a little intense). The guys at Tellwell prepare team lunches together in the Den’s fully stocked kitchen in an effort to stay healthy, save money, and build community. Members bring their puppies in for a bit of communal stress relief. For a while, there were even hammocks.
“I look forward to coming to the Prairie Den everyday,” Johnson said. “It’s kind of like a feeling between getting to go hang out with your friends but then also going to work.”
The Den has also served as a venue for a variety of events and meetups such as Drone Focus Monthly, the Red River Market kick-off, a Concordia College summer class, Girl Develop It, and Startup Drinks.. It has been a destination for global investor Paul Singh, Senators John Hoeven and Heidi Heitkamp, and Congressman Kevin Cramer.
In 365 days, the Prairie Den has grown from an empty space above a Chinese buffet into a colorful workplace for an assortment of equally colorful people. And don’t worry– it doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon.
“Annie singlehandedly took that space and created a community within it that people wanted to be a part of,” Kringen said. “In doing that, she has created this big ball of energy that’s like a snowball and just keeps growing.”
Happy Birthday, Prairie Den. Thanks for an awesome year!