Wanting to be part of the community-- and part of downtown Harbor Springs-- was the driving factor for (clockwise from left) Stephanie Baker, Janelle Warnemuende, Ellen VanderZee, and Meghann Valade in renting the space above Coyote Women on Main Street. The four women all own creative businesses ranging from photography to event planning to yoga. (Harbor Light photo by Charles O'Neill)
Over a lunch of Gurneys sandwiches and Tom's Mom's Cookies last week, four young Harbor Springs women chatted about creative collaboration, decorating details, and puppy etiquette. This quadruple dose of artistic, entrepreneurial energy-- photographer Stephanie Baker, graphic designer and yoga instructor Meghann Valade, and event planners Janelle Warnemuende and Ellen VanderZee-- came together to open a coworking space above Coyote Woman Gallery in downtown Harbor Springs, and ever since their idea sparked into action, the conversations haven't slowed down.
"I always knew I wanted to get out of my house and work downtown," said Baker, 30, whose senior (also family) portraits and wedding photography has become a northern Michigan staple, and whose puppy, Seger, is the office greeter. "Meghann was starting to look for a space to teach yoga. We found this and just knew it would be perfect. The more we talked about it, the more it was like, 'yes, we have to make this happen.'"
Valade, 29, is a newlywed and newly minted resident of northern Michigan. She said the natural spaces and outdoor adventures drew her away from the Grand Rapids area in 2012.
"Northern Michigan has such a special place in my heart it just seems natural to share my passion with the community in any way that I can," she said. "There's a lot of benefits to being downtown."
"Like getting coffee, taking walks on our lunchbreak," Baker interjected.
"Right," Valade said. "It's just being around people, and being part of something."
Like any true dreamers, Baker and Valade began sharing their idea of sharing a space with friends. Smitten Events partners Janelle Warnemuende, 27, and Ellen Beatty VanderZee, 28, soon got swept up with the possibilities.
"At first, I said 'no way, we do not need a space,'" laughed Warnemuende. "But then we started talking about it, and--"
"Everything just gelled," VanderZee said with a smile. "Our businesses all complement each other, and we all get along so well. Every decision about this space has been collective."
Smitten Events-- the brainchild of VanderZee and Warnemuende-- has started making a name for itself in wedding and event planning locally and around the state. The pair both note they are obsessed with attention to detail, and are able to handle every aspect of an event.
"There are two of us from beginning to end. We both collaborate on ideas and decor throughout the process," VanderZee said, adding their new co-working space adds even more fuel to their creative fires.
Drawn downtown by a desire for community, connection, and vibrancy, these women are also keenly aware that Harbor Springs is on the cusp of something new-- and they want to be part of it.
"I honestly feel like Harbor has always embraced the 'real community' concept," said Vanderzee, who, along with Baker, graduated from Harbor Springs High School. "Growing up here, we have realized how influential that has been on our lives and we want to keep it going. We want to keep the community thriving and that means our generation really needs to step up and make that happen."
Baker, who also currently serves on the city's Downtown Development Authority, agreed.
"We're always talking about what comes first: a critical mass of people downtown, or more shops/restaurants that are open and self-sustaining year-round. We all feel strongly about doing our part."
Sharing a second story Main Street address has proved to be the perfect answer, allowing the four women to afford a spot downtown. A separate office area, painted and designed to feel simple, clean, and cool, can be shut off from the rest of the space. The main room is wide open, natural light streaming onto the wood floor, which officially opens this week as Valade's Pure Yoga (power Vinyasa yoga studio). Modern lines and understated decor of the nearby couch space, with walls sparsely lined with Baker's photos and digital prints Valade created (and sells), proves to be as hip and fresh as the new tenants.
"Having access to everything plus being in the center of where the energy is happening is perfect for new businesses like ours. The visibility with foot traffic is great as well," Warnemuende noted.
The idea of co-working spaces isn't brand new. In major cities, coworking offices have become a vital part of the creative sector. Taking this idea-- and tailoring it to a small town-- is one way to bring more professionals into the area. And where folks are working, downtowns are thriving.
"Being in a collaborative space, people move away from the competition mindset, and instead start supporting each other," Valade said. "Success for one business in a small town really does have a positive ripple effect for everyone. And if you take part in the community, and ask for help, people are willing to support you."
VanderZee added that she'd love to see more people try collaborative efforts like this.
"Find friends with similar businesses or just people you want to associate yourself with," she said. "We were all super nervous about getting this space and wondering if we would fail, but I think people also need to realize sometimes your gut will tell you no, but if the opportunity arises...You have to jump at it."
She also noted the space will be available for some events planned through Smitten Events, and that anyone interested should contact her or Warnemuende. Community members will also be able to gather there for weekly Valade's weekly yoga classes.
"The kind of yoga I teach is different from what's already being offered in the area. My classes are really energetic, but work well for all levels. I'm also really looking forward to offering private instruction," Valade said.
VanderZee, who also serves as the assistant coach for the Harbor Springs High School girls' soccer team, has already connected Valade with her players, who have taken group classes.
It's little connections like this-- Baker has shot several weddings planned by Smitten Events, Valade is planning bridal party yoga classes for the "big day", Smitten Events is collaborating on ways to bring people, and events, into their shared space-- that are already bringing added value for all four businesses.
As they sit contemplating who will finish hanging pictures into place, when to have their opening party (look for an announcement late May), and what ways they can connect more with the community, it's clear, however, this added value of collaboration extends far beyond business.
"There seems to be a shift in people's thinking lately...it's like over the years we all got away from what's important and we all realized it and now we're trying to get back to the basics," Baker said. "It seems like people everywhere are searching for a way to have a more personal, authentic life.
"Harbor Springs has always had that. It's a model town for what people are trying to achieve - we have the friendly faces, charming farms, local restaurants, etc. It's all here - it just needs to be nurtured a bit. That's what's so nice about getting people downtown. It creates an opportunity for all these magical things to flourish."
To learn more about these businesses, visit the following websites: Stephanie Baker, www.stephanienbaker.com; Meghann Valade, www.harborspringsyoga.com and graphic design prints at etsy.com, shop name "WeAreUpNorth"; Ellen VanderZee and Janelle Warnemuende, www.smitteninthemittenevents.com