Heather On Collaborative Partnerships and the Human Need to Connect

Heather Dudley-Nollette is co-founder of The CoLab, a coworking space in Port Townsend, Washington. This increasingly popular model of sharing space and resources strengthens community and encourages entrepreneurs and freelance professionals to share ideas, collaborate and innovate. While Heather is investing energy into the new collaborative workspace model of The CoLab, she is also helping to preserve and restore a prominent historical landmark in Port Townsend. As project manager of the Hastings Hotel Project, she is leading the historic rehabilitation of the 125-year old building into a boutique hotel.

The synthesis of cultivating the new, restoring the old and preserving the historic, gives Heather a unique and broad understanding of the effort and humanity required to collaborate. She believes that at the core of this work is the human need to connect. Whether she is collaborating to restore and bring into service a cultural and historical landmark or creating partnerships with small business owners to stimulate a new economy, the intent is the same: to bring people together to connect, make good things happen and help community thrive.

I’m a performing artist, a business person, a mom, a wife, a daughter, a niece, a sister, a friend. Art and relationships tend to lead my perspectives on the world. So, when I put on my entrepreneurial, business and community leadership hats, I tend to see all of my work through that lens.

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When did you move to Port Townsend and what brought you there?

I had been living in Seattle off and on since 1985, with forays in California, Utah, Sevilla (Spain) and Vancouver Island (Canada) over that time. Before that, as the child of a Coast Guardsman, I grew up moving every 2-3 years. So I think I carried that sensibility into my adult life. But Port Townsend was the one place that I consistently visited—having family and family business here all my life. When I finally moved here in 2007, it was with the idea that I’d be working on the Hastings project for a few years to get it permitted and off the ground. But I’ve never looked back. Now PT is the place I love to travel from, and I always look forward to coming home.

What makes Port Townsend unique?

In many ways, it’s not unique at all. Port Townsend has all the things that the best small towns across the world have to offer: a tight-knit community where people stop on the street to say hello on their way about their daily business; a strong sense of local interdependence; real challenges as we work through community leadership issues together. But there are some consistent differences that people tend to notice when they spend time here. Jefferson County is home to a high percentage of independent entrepreneurs, many of which are actively making their living (or at least supplementing their incomes) with their work as artists. The fact that our gardeners, our plumbers, teachers, government services directors and coffee shop owners are also photographers, musicians, actors, painters and writers—it somehow gives our community a holistic sensibility that connects us to each other and to the world in a very real and grounding way.

What does The CoLab offer to members and how do they benefit from this platform?

The CoLab offers a typical coworking model—including a beautiful office space in a restored historic building, complete with high ceilings, tall windows with tons of natural light, high-speed Internet, a variety of different workstation options, comfortable seating, meeting rooms and a shared kitchen. But more importantly, the CoLab has become a place where a community of independent entrepreneurs can come together to share resources, ideas and solutions. Our motto “Independent Together” succinctly describes the network of support that is created when we come out of our homes and single-occupancy offices to work in collaboration with one another.

What benefits does The CoLab bring to the community of Port Townsend?

The CoLab is a coworking and meeting space. And although we may be the first to bring this global model to Jefferson County, we’re really just following in the footsteps of many coworking communities throughout the world. Most of the coworking spaces today exist and thrive in medium- to larger-sized urban areas. So the puzzle that we’re trying to crack on a daily basis is how to adapt this urban model to a semi-rural city of approximately 9,000 people. The CoLab provides us not only with a professional place to work, but it also offer a structure that fosters a community culture—helping us to feel less isolated in our work, and opening doors to sometimes serendipitous opportunities to collaborate with colleagues and across industries. We do that with everything from weekly goal-setting sessions and informal happy hours, to our “Co-U” Community Education Series, sponsorship of local events and festivals, free and discounted meeting space for local non-profit, community and educational organizations. We’d like to think by bringing this model to our town, we are encouraging a growing culture of collaboration that touches everyone in some way. Innovation finds a new spark and thrives when we create that kind of support network.

Your partner at The CoLab, Frank DePalma, wrote a blog post on Our Role In the New Economy. What is your perspective on the shift from big employers to independent workers and telecommuters? Does it bring more economic possibility to rural places like Port Townsend?

I’d say that this major shift in the way we do our work today does bring new possibilities to rural places…if the people there choose to create the required basic infrastructure of services. There has to be a certain level of support in the community in order for independent entrepreneurs and telecommuters to thrive there. Small towns do have to work for it, and that hopefully begins with a common vision amongst the existing community members—who must come together to ask themselves, do we want to attract and keep emerging businesses and telecommuters? And if we do, what are we willing to do to welcome and support them? I think one of the myths that we can get caught up in a small town is that if we have good enough Internet, anyone can (and will want to) work from here. Don’t get me wrong; fast reliable Internet is essential. But we also can’t overlook the need to continually build a base of living wage local jobs that serve the basic needs of our community. Where there may be one person in a family who can move here and bring their job with them, there is often a spouse, or a child who will also eventually need a job. We have to keep building opportunities on both of those fronts if we really want to create a sustainable economy and culture.

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Frank DePalma, The CoLab, Port Townsend, WA

1889, your 3rd great grandparents built The Hastings Building. What do you know about the original vision for the building?

The Hastings Building was originally built as a multi-use commercial building, with ground floor retail and upper floor professional office space. Although I’ve never run across any real description indicating Lucinda Hastings’ hopes and dreams for the building, all accounts of her and her husband’s (Loren B. Hastings’) leadership in Jefferson County tell me that they cared very much about the future of this place and the people who lived here. I believe they worked hard to create a lasting legacy of economic and other benefits for their community; developing this keystone building was a part of that effort. In the times when the attempt to carry on their legacy has become particularly challenging, I’ve often tried to quiet my mind enough, attempting to tap into their original strength and vision—trying to remember the importance of tying our decisions for this project back to the needs and goals of our neighbors and friends.

What has been the greatest challenge in the historic preservation of the building?

I hate to say it so bluntly, but money. No doubt, this project has forced us to dig deep—to really understand, and change our relationship with money. We spent over 7 years working through the many challenges associated with permitting this project through all the local, state and federal processes. That was a huge challenge. But it was one that we just kept stepping through, working with people at every level—instead of against. To some degree we always had some sense of control, at least over how we interacted with our partners along the way to get the job done. But connecting with the financial resources to take a permitted project of this size to completion—well, there is nothing about this project that has made me feel quite so at the whim of other people’s capacity and will.

It’s really given me the opportunity to find a new perspective, to realize that money is truly just a measurement of energy. There is nothing inherently evil or selfish about having it. But believing that you can truly do good things with it without turning into someone you don’t want to be—that can change everything.

When do you expect the building to be renovated and functioning as a hotel? Will it also house a restaurant?

This is very dependent on wrapping up the funding package that we’re working on currently. Our goal remains to be able to open the hotel in 2017. And yes, there will be a restaurant. We’re very excited to be able to announce our operations partners. Stay tuned!

Are you optimistic about the economic future of Port Townsend? Is this a town in transition economically?

I believe that this is an historically significant time of transition for all small communities, throughout the world—but certainly here in the U.S. We are rapidly shifting priorities, searching for a real sense of balance in our lives and in our work in a way that allows us to align more directly with our passions, aptitudes and personal goals. I think we can see that shift most palpably in small towns, cities and boroughs—especially in places where independent entrepreneurs and other small businesses are the backbone of the local economy. We are being asked—by circumstance—to adapt so quickly today, to a physical, economic and technical environment that truly changes with each passing day. And yes, I am optimistic. Both by nature and with good reason. We have the ability today to gather information, literally from across the world with one internet search, phone call, or social network connection (in person or online)—in a way that allows us to learn from each other’s successes and mistakes before we take on virtually any new endeavor. That kind of shared base of wisdom, if we use it, will bring us leaps and bounds ahead in the coming years.

What really matters to you?

People matter to me. Making the compassionate choice, especially when it would be easier to think only of my own needs; finding joy despite the challenges that life brings; striving to find and achieve my own personal greatness, and supporting others to do the same. All of these goals are made easier and more fulfilling when I seek them in relationship with other people.

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