March 31--VALDOSTA -- The Wisenbaker building, downtown at 100 North Patterson Street, has seen a lot.
Dated back to 1885 by an old Sanborn Fire Insurance Company Map, the two-story building started out with a general store on the bottom floor and a printing press on the second. In 1895, the First National Bank was established and remained until 1954. After the bank, the building housed offices for Dr. Tom Smith and the Robinson Humphrey Company, before becoming the law offices for Wisenbaker and Brooks in the 1980s.
Now, Wisenbaker building houses the Valdosta Shared Office Space. Opened in 2006, it came about -- like a good friendship -- by accident.
"I actually planned to use it for an insurance business," said Gino Fina, owner of Valdosta Shared Office Space, "but it ended up locating elsewhere."
Fina decided to turn the building into a shared office space.
Working with the Valdosta Chamber of Commerce and the Small Business Development Center, Fina opened up in the fall of 2006, hoping to attract business owners who were ready to take their business out of their garage or living room. His first tenant was Anne Barnas. Barnas, a Human Resources Specialist, wanted to go into business for herself, helping small businesses that were too small to have an HR department with their HR needs. After weighing the pros and cons of where to locate an office, Barnas, along with Megan Smith who retired last August, moved into Shared Office Space, opening Smith Barnas and Associates, Inc.
"If you want to establish a professional presence, you have to move from your home," said Barnas. "The first month there was very quiet, but it was such an excellent location, we knew it was home. It helped us focus."
"Smith and Barnas were my pioneer tenants," said Fina.
After the first month, Smith and Barnas were joined by Paul Hotchkiss.
"I call them the Mom and Pop of the place," said Gino.
Hotchkiss, who runs Cornerstone Design and Consulting Inc., designs custom homes and spaces, working with layout and planning software to give customers a full, 3-D idea of what a completed house will look like. After going full-time in the summer of 2006, he happened to see the Shared Office Spaces sign advertising office space and moved right in.
Paul, who has designed over 800 homes in his career, also found himself laying out office space for colleagues.
"It's a good place to grow," said Cindy Hotchkiss, who, along with Paul, her husband, works as building manager. "No matter your size."
"We try not to have competition in the building," said Paul. "And we're careful about each other's privacy."
"When one of us has success, that's the rising tide that lifts all our boats," said Fina.
"There's a peripheral support group that's there, but not obtrusive," said Barnas. "We do try to support each other....Every time Kris made a placement, he has a small horn he'd blow and we'd all cheer."
Kris is Kris Jensen, who runs F-O-R-T-U-N-E Personal Consultants, a small executive recruiting firm, in the Shared Office Space.
"I was looking for a place to put a business, to have a storefront," said Jensen.
As his business has grown since 2008, and as he's added staff, Jensen has moved around in the building from bigger room to bigger room.
"It's very convenient," said Jensen. "You don't have to worry about amenities or charges for all the extras...the whole space works as a business incubator." Shared Office Space did just that for Azalea Health. Started by a couple of Valdosta State University graduates, Azalea Health, which focuses on creating software for managing various aspects of the medical field, grew quickly, at one point renting out the lion's share of the building before having to move to a separate location to accommodate them.
"All of the offices are private," said Gino. "People have the option of keeping the door closed and working. But working in the building together energized them. They didn't have to feel like they were alone."
Businesses would share leads with each other or point customers in the direction of other Shared Office Space tenants. An accounting service that operated out of the Wisenbaker building found customers in its neighbors. Sick tenants would find cards slipped under their door.
"We have birthday celebrations, Christmas get-togethers," said Jensen. "It's real collegial."
Kathy Ball, a lawyer, opened her door to everyone.
"I would go to Kathy whenever I needed counsel," said Gino.
When Ball was suddenly and sadly diagnosed with cancer, the community reacted.
"The doctors told us to not to visit, that she needed to rest, said Fina. "When I finally did, she wondered where I had been."
"I remember walking into the hospital and seeing Cindy there," said Barnas. "We had both come running when we heard about Cathy...I actually met my husband through her."
"Kathy was actually a painter," said Fina. "We still have this painting of a frog she was working on before. It's still not finished. She never got to sign it."
Since opening, Shared Office Space has grown along with downtown Valdosta.
"I've gotten to watch the downtown really grow to serve a need," said Fina. "It's become more of a business center."
While Fina has gotten to watch his business grow, he credits the community for helping get it started. "Valdosta is lucky to have the Small Business Development Center," said Fina. "Between them and the Chamber of Commerce, there's a lot of help and encouragement for new businesses."
"Everyone here works well individually, but there's a continuity to it. This building is a community event."
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