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‘Place for business ideas' grows in North Liberty

posted on Wednesday, December 16, 2015

You can see why entrepreneurial business types might like setting up shop at the North Liberty CoLab suite of offices at Liberty Plaza.

This space, located at 215 Highway 965 Suite 1, is gaining ground as a hip, laid-back environment for start-up business developers who are in tune with tech systems and trends and value fresh inspiration through networking with their peers.

For example, furniture in both the main open work area and large conference room consists of rows of rough-hewn board tables for laptops that contrast with the comfortable office chairs, big-screen TV and 20-feet of white board for presentations. When I stopped by the complex last week, one young worker was sprawled flat on a corner sofa, typing on a laptop balanced on his stomach.

The hallways and smaller rooms appear dark, but only because the lights are activated by motion sensors. So are the high-tech thermostats.

A huge cardboard cutout of Sylvester Stallone in the classic Rocky Balboa boxing stance dominates a hallway corner, urging entrepreneurs to “get tough.”

One wall of the conference room features the full reclaimed wooden bar once located in the historic Fitzpatrick’s pub in Iowa City.

“It’s the idea bar conference room,” says Jeff Schweitzer, founder and manager of the CoLab. “Countless great ideas started on a cocktail napkin.  We want to stimulate an environment where those great ideas can occur. The idea bar creates that comfort and association while in a workplace.  Whether you have a drink or not is totally up to you.”

Other amenities include 110 mb high-speed Internet, an optional land-line phone, a kitchenette, free coffee from Capanna and 24-hour key card access. There are also flexible payment plans ranging from one day a week drop-in for $40/month to $490 a month for a long-term, two-person lockable office. Full-time members can also schedule meetings at sister CoLabs in Coralville and Iowa City at no extra charge.

The CoLab also offers “Advance in 60” presentations in partnership with the Entrepreneurial Development Center of Cedar Rapids on the first Fridays of each month. These are 60-minute programs where local experts, along with a local entrepreneur, offer advice on a wide variety of business topics.

“We know time demands are very high for that population,” Schweitzer says.

But the biggest perk, he adds, is the collaborative culture co-working generates — being surrounded by like-minded entrepreneurs who are anxious to move their start-up businesses out of the basement and into the world. It is now one year after CoLab was officially launched and he thinks it’s on the right track.

Permanent space-holders at the complex now include BlendCard, a loyalty and discount card provider; Axle Rev, which works with firms on organizational development; Purple Top, a search engine optimization firm; and an Aflac insurance suite started here by an entrepreneur. One more private office is available, and of course the conference room and drop-in work spaces are used as needed by various groups and individuals.

Schweitzer keeps this flock encouraged. His business card refers to the CoLab as “the place where ideas live.” His title on the card is “idea junkie”.

“Creative problem solving is key for any start up business,” he says. “That is what I love to be a part of. I get to live vicariously through their success.”

He has his own ideas about expanding the CoLab, attracting more entrepreneurs and unique businesses to North Liberty and marketing the community’s location as perfectly situated in the heart of the Corridor.

“I think of North Liberty as very attractive for a lot of businesses,” he says. “All the successes that occur in Cedar Rapids and in Iowa City do nothing but strengthen the strategic advantage of the center of the corridor, North Liberty.”

Schweitzer grew up in Kalona, became a pharmacist through the University of Iowa and worked in medical fields and healthcare information technology before getting into property development. He purchased the 26,000 square feet of commercial space and warehouse space at Liberty Plaza ten years ago and more recently an additional 14,000 square feet adjacent to the Plaza.

He says his parents sparked his enthusiasm for business ideas and creative thinking. His father was an entrepreneur building homes, plus had owned a grocery store and a refrigeration company over his lifetime. Schweitzer remembers his mother would often do things like hold up the ring from a milk jug cap and ask her kids, “Now what can we do with this?”

North Liberty CoLab is sponsored by Schweitzer’s Vantage Point Properties, the City of North Liberty, South Slope Cooperative, MidWestOne Bank and Great Western Bank with in-kind services provided by Bergan Paulsen.

The facility is not a non-profit venture, but a “socially good” enterprise Schweitzer says he is happy to provide space for and support.

More information?  Check out www.iccolab.com/northliberty.

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