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Ohio's alternative office spaces: high tech, cool digs

LeanDog's office space on Cleveland's North Coast Harbor
LeanDog's office space on Cleveland's North Coast Harbor - Bob Perkoski
Historic structures have a certain charm and intrigue; others have their share of quirk. Ohio is home to an array of such spaces that inventive members of the state's tech industry are finding ways to update. They've already transformed a defunct brewery, a 120-year-old barge and a legendary theater to suit their needs, all the while engaging in the ultimate green practice: reuse.

hiVelocity's Karin Connelly rounded up a bevy of Ohio businesses that are housed in unusual office spaces for this special feature.

A storied theater in downtown Cleveland tacks toward tech
The digs: The Cleveland Agora first opened in 1966 near the Case Western University Campus. A year later, it moved to a second location before ultimately ending up at 5000 Euclid Ave. The Agora became a cornerstone in the entertainment business, with bands such as ZZ Top, the Raspberries and Foghat getting their start there.
The venue still hosts concerts, but it's also home to a duo of bright area startups, Tackk and eFuneral.
The fit: Tackk is an online service that allows users to design and create their own online announcements and invitations. eFuneral helps people find the funeral services they need quickly and easily. The Agora's hip vibe appealed to both companies, which share a space.
“When you walk into the space, there are 20-foot ceilings, exposed brick. Huge windows look over Euclid Avenue and a view of the Agora marquee,” says eFuneral founder Mike Belsito. “We’ve set up the space to be conducive to a creative atmosphere.”
Tackk co-founder Eric Bockmuller envisioned a coffeehouse-style atmosphere when he chose the space. “We wanted a space where you sit where space is available, with couches, stools and chairs,” he says. “When you come in in the morning, if you feel like sitting on the couch, you sit on the couch. Wherever you feel comfortable working, you’re working for the day.”
Amid the video games and Nerf guns that come standard in any cool startup office, Belsito and Bockmuller note the rich musical history that also surrounds them. “It’s a cool thing that Springsteen played concerts here,” says Belsito.
The rub: Birds. “Chasing them out when we would come in the morning was a bit of a challenge,” recalls Belsito of the first days in the space. “But that got resolved fairly quickly and we haven't had an issue ever since.”

From beer to ceramics, and a tech-style road trip
The digs: The building on E. McMicken Avenue in Cincinnati was originally the Crown Brewery, which opened in the late 1800s, and struggled through prohibition with non-alcoholic beer and root beer before closing in 1921. It then housed a porcelain factory and was eventually abandoned before Roadtrippers, an online road trip planning company, took over a portion of the building in January and transformed it into something unique.

“The outside is yet to be re-done, but inside it's an awesome combination of old and new,” says Roadtrippers operations manager Chelsea Koglmeier. “We have wooden tables littered with Macs, vintage artwork next to a TV projecting real-time analytics, and an old keggerator fridge stocked full of local beer from new breweries in town like Rhinegeist, 50West and Madtree.”
The fit: The old brewery is a perfect home for the skyrocketing app company. “The building is innately unique because of its history,” says Koglmeier. “As a group, we love off-beat places, weird attractions and abandoned anything. This building threads perfectly into our company culture.”

The rub: With the rundown appearance of the building's exterior, people are often shocked there’s a business operating there. “Our biggest challenge is people coming to see us because the building doesn't look inhabited,” explains Koglmeier. “The majority of our windows are broken out and there are no other businesses in our neck of the OTR (Over-the-Rhine) woods, so people get a bit confused when they arrive at the space.”

That's soon to change. Roadtrippers is growing so fast that they plan to remodel other parts of the building for expansion. “The next phase of building out the space is incorporating more car stuff -- vintage, amazing, weird, aluminum -- maybe some rusted bikes and quasi-functional mopeds,” says Koglmeier.

Flying high to broadcast far and away
The digs: BoxCast, a video broadcasting company that enables organizations to affordably air their events live online, soared to new heights when it moved its offices into a 3,600 square foot space on the second floor of Burke Lakefront Airport in Cleveland. Locating in a working airport brings spectacular views and plenty of excitement.
“The upsides are, I’m right on stinking Lake Erie,” says BoxCast founder Gordon Daily. “I can see planes come in and land and the views of the city are incredible.”
The fit: The live action of the airport provides a perfect backdrop for BoxCast’s broadcast-it-live mission. Plus, Daily says he gets 24-hour security from the airport, free parking and easy access from the highway. “And I turn left at two fighter jets to get to my office.” he says. “I love the space.”
The rub: Daily had to quadruple his insurance when he chose Burke as BoxCast’s new home, and he had to secure the city’s approval before moving in. “And if Homeland Security decides to take control of the building, I have to get everyone out in a moment’s notice,” says Daily. But he says the upsides are worth it. “It’s fun to be a part of a mini waterfront movement.”

Historic Marietta meets high-tech marketing

The fit: Offenberger & White, Inc. (also known as "OffWhite"), provides integrated marketing services to its clients, specializing in technology products and services. Owner Bill White wanted a space that fit Marietta’s rich history.
“Marietta is a city predicated in history,” White says. “We didn’t want to be in a normal office. This is a building that permits you to think. The ambiance here is conducive to creativity”
The digs: The historical house, built circa 1895, is the gateway to Harmar Village, the original site of the landing in Marietta in 1788, just a couple of hundred yards away from the site of Fort Harmar. There are stonemason marks in many of the rusticated sandstone blocks. The front porch sandstone pillars still have the marks from sulfur matches used to light cigars along with two hearts carved into the pillars said to be for the owner's daughter. Bits of coal still dot the old coal chute in the basement and the courtyard is landscaped with antique paving bricks from a long-gone Marietta street.
The rub: The house's solid sandstone walls prohibit drilling, so White got around the issue by using the laundry chute to run gas, electric, and Internet lines and cables. It also serves as a flight path for the occasional bat.
White also hired an architectural historian and a restoration architect to preserve the nature of the building while equipping it with the latest technology. The HVAC system, wiring and plumbing systems are all concealed. “It looks exactly the way it did when it was built,” White says. In 1990 the house was awarded the Ohio Historical Society’s Historic Preservation Merit Award.”
A grand old lady on the Lake Erie shore gets software savvy
The digs: When LeanDog opened for business in 2008, company owner Jon Stahl went in search of the most unique office space he could find. He found it on a 120-year-old barge permanently docked at Cleveland's North Coast Harbor. LeanDog, a software development company, first rented the boat and eventually bought it in 2011 and remodeled it.
“It has a great history to it,” Stahl says. “It’s big, it’s old and there’s always something to see looking out on the water.”
The fit: The unusual floating space fits LeanDog’s philosophy. “For us, it’s important for what we do,” Stahl says. “We teach a lot of innovation in the companies we serve.”
Stahl has played on the nautical theme. The ship’s wheel is displayed, and a sea monster complete with tentacles that wrap around the windows, is painted on the wall. Modern amenities include a rock climbing wall, gym and stocked bar.
The rub: Being on a boat has its challenges. “We have about three sea sick days a year, it makes that much movement,” says Stahl. The staff just moves next door to Burke Lakefront Airport on those days. “A couple of days a year we have midges and in the winter the Coast Guard is always doing drills.” Hurricane Sandy did $60,000 worth of damage to LeanDog’s digs. But the views of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, the airport and the Army Corps of Engineers, not to mention Lake Erie itself, make it all worth it.

Out with yesteryear's hardware, in with today's research
The digs: Novella Clinical, which manages clinical trials for the pharmaceutical and medical device industries, occupies half of the second floor of the old Smith Brothers Hardware Building on North Fourth Street in Columbus. The 1929 building was constructed for Smith Brothers’ distribution center – one of the largest in the Midwest. The business closed in the 1980s and sat vacant for 15 years before Capitol Equities revamped the building, taking advantage of the 10-foot concrete floors and large windows to create a modern look in the vintage building.
Kathleen Zajd, vice president of global quality and compliance for Novella, finds the modern space quite unique, and notes the landlord’s attention to detail. “The elevators have silk screens of found objects in the building,” she says. “The lobby has the desk that was used for ordering hardware as well as the chute the hardware was sent down on.”

The fit: The space offers a nice contrast to Novella’s intense work. “Although we are an industry on the cutting edge, being in an environment that reminds us of our history is very grounding,” she says. “We spend a lot of time at work, so it was important for us to select a space that provided an aesthetic that would positively impact our moods and productivity.”

“It’s open, bold, strong,” she adds. “It’s historic but with a modern appeal.”

Photos Bob Perkoski except where noted
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