Published Date Written by Timothy Gillis
A subtle space on York Street is making a lot of noise. The Engine Room, a shared workspace located on the first floor in the repurposed Brown building, believes in collaboration over competition. It got its motor going a couple of years ago when Yona Belfort, who was working for Ideo, a worldwide innovation company, began looking for a switch.
"I had a friend of mine, an illustrator working at Fringe (a creative cooperative space in Somerville Mass.)," Belfort said. "I went in there and was pretty much blown away — much more hipster than Engine Room is, younger, a ton of soul. They didn't automatically give me a space. They made me come back and quasi-interview — kind of cool. It wasn't like a typical co-working space where they just take my monthly money. They wanted to know what I did."
He worked there for a year, knowing he was moving north. His wife was pregnant, and his parents live in Cumberland. He united with Jim Hauptman, a marketing and strategy consultant at Blaze, and Chuck Martin, of Chuck Martin Productions, which does photo shoots for catalogs.
"I hooked up with Jim on LinkedIn, got him to come visit Fringe. I'd been thinking about creating such a space in Portland. He knew the space we'd use already. Chuck also had been looking at the space and joined in," said Belfort, the principal of Vital Innovation, a product design company that focuses on packaging. They are now working on curbside recycling of alkaline batteries with a project dubbed "Call to Recycling."
The Engine Room is different from Fringe in a few important ways.
"We couldn't bring clients there," Belfort said of the Massachusetts workspace. "The working letterpress studio was too loud, so knew we wanted to make some key differences. You can bring clients into our space. It's a little bit more refined. And we like being on the first floor, close to the action so we can just spill out onto the streets."
They did retain much of the business philosophy, however. The Fringe experience taught them the three P's of sharing space: People, Price and Place.
"We keep the rent reasonably low so we can be selective about who we want in the space," he said. "We definitely got some people who came in and didn't work. It felt one way."
The Engine Room runs on a two-way street, and the space looks for its inhabitants to give back.
"Our goal isn't simply to 'fill the space,' but rather to attract businesses from various creative endeavors whose owners recognize the value in cross-pollination, collaboration and the sharing of ideas," the Engine Room website says. They offer six-month leases so as to keep a handle on its membership. Though it seems to have found the right combination. Bryan Wiggins has been there for more than year and has worked with the same folks each day.
Wiggins, who works full-time for the Mendoza Group, a multicultural agency located outside of Philadelphia, also offers writing workshops. He joined the Engine Room when the solitude of working at home started to outweigh its liberating benefits.
"I worked at my house at first. The professional growth this place inspires is profound," Wiggins said of the Engine Room. "It feels less cut-throat than other business environments. If you're looking for karmic goodwill, it's a great incubator."
The Engine Room has hosted American Institute of Graphic Arts, 2 Degrees Portland, and several other socials. Workers took a white-water rafting trip to Ripogenus Gorge, near Katahdin, and ran into "double trouble" — a double run of the Penobscot River.
"We fell into the Terminator, terrifying class 5 rapids," Wiggins said. He said Belfort, a surfer, didn't seem fazed by the sudden watery speed, but thinks they may soften the occasion this year. "Maybe a ski trip to Shawnee Peak," Wiggins said.
He loves the social outings, whatever the exhilarating danger, and especially appreciates the personal interactions that replaced his home office loneliness.
"I tried to bridge it with emails, writing long missives to my co-workers that none of them returned," Wiggins said. "Conference calls weren't much better — some of the nuances lost on the page were picked up by my phone, but without key facial cues, those calls were better for creating to-do lists and deadlines than any meaningful human connections."
His workday now runs much more efficiently. He credits the Engine Room for inspiring that improvement.
"The spark of creativity is certainly the key to the place's power, but like any motor's efficiency, it's dependent on the nature of its design and the quality of its fuel," he said.
The Engine logo etched on the shop's front door "is echoed as a larger graphic that floats high upon an interior glass wall. The conference room door is a gorgeous rough rectangle of reclaimed barn boards that rumbles to a close on an overhead aluminum track," Wiggins says of the space in promotional materials. "And I walked into the bathroom one day to find that the perfectly serviceable aluminum handrails along the walls had been replaced by the same skinny black pipes and threaded industrial brackets that now hung as rollers for the toilet paper and paper towels. Little things, yes — but that mean so much to people who spend their days trying to redesign the world."
The Engine Room's current roster includes a branding expert, a photo shoot producer, a product designer, an architect, and two creative directors.
"Engine Room, however, represents a microcosm of the corporations that are redefining a global market," Wiggins said. "If smaller, more efficient companies are the new engines of big business, the place has sharpened that model down to its individual core. Each of us alone is responsible for running our tiny corporations — a responsibility that promotes the unique mix of independence and support that makes the place tick."
The Engine Room mission is to curate "creatives" — working types who continue to blur the line between professional and personal. Wiggins sees the interior workings of the place leading to exterior production, saying "If we're going to make something creative outside this office, we have to keep the energy going."