Huntsville West: Repurposing a Former School into a Coworking Community

Passions run high when neighborhood schools face retirement.

Residents and alumni get emotional reminiscing about passing notes in science class, sneaking their first kiss behind the bleachers, gossiping with friends around the lockers, and cramming for pop quizzes in the library.

Unlike an old warehouse or aging office building, most schools face an uncertain future. Their unique layout makes gutting the building and converting it into a retail store or apartment building impractical.

As an alternative to demolition, old schools usually sell for pennies on the dollar and sit useless and abandoned for many years.

Huntsville, however, is not like most cities.

When Huntsville City Schools retired more 700,000 square feet of school space a few years ago, Huntsville’s serial entrepreneurs used their tenaciously innovative spirit and ingenuity to find pragmatic solutions for this otherwise wasteful real estate.

Several successful projects have been born from repurposing abandoned schools.

Huntsville developer Randy Schrimsher converted the Butler High School/Stone Middle School built in 1951 into downtown Huntsville’s premier brewery and entertainment center, Campus 805.

The Huntsville Madison County Public Library Foundation (HMCPL) bought the original Virgil I. Grissom High School on Bailey Cove Road and is currently repurposing it into the Sandra Moon Community Complex and new Huntsville Library.

Twenty-nine-year-old Brandon Kruse is a technological magnate.

By the age of 24, he had already built and sold a successful telecommunications company. In 2014, he used $500,000 of those proceeds to buy a shuttered West Huntsville Elementary School on 9th Avenue.

He planned to convert it into a low overhead small business incubator he refers to as “a flophouse for entrepreneurs” called the Huntsville West Coworking Community. Almost a year later, Kruse purchased the vacant Westlawn Middle School,  just down the street from West Huntsville, for $650,000 for similar repurposing.

While Westlawn is currently home to the Huntsville Achievement Academy, it is only 20 percent completed, and will have a big agenda in 2019.

Huntsville West on the other hand is proving to be very successful and, if not for the variety of memberships and leasing options available, on any given day it sits at 100 percent occupancy.

According to Community Manager Demetrius Malone, Huntsville West caters to startup technology companies, entrepreneurs, freelancers, and creative professionals who have limited resources and need flexibility. Among the current tenants you will find a diverse community of software developers, Google Fiber technicians, Disney engineers, data security firms, nonprofit organizations, and mentoring and consulting services.

“One of the ways we offer flexibility is through a variety of affordable memberships and low-cost all-inclusive month-to-month leasing options,” Malone said. “Research shows that among start-up businesses and entrepreneurs, there is a real fear of sustainability on a long-term office space lease. This undue stress becomes a distraction when the focus should be on growing the business or getting a product or service to market.”

Although Huntsville West has a waiting list for the 35 or 40 redesigned “classrooms” acting as individual offices and studios along the hallways, there is much more to Huntsville West than private offices.

“We have many ways for you to benefit from joining our community,” said Malone.

In fact, a large segment of the Huntsville West Coworking Community doesn’t have private offices at all. The community’s basic membership starts at $150 and gives the member access to all the common areas, coworking lounge, conference rooms, and break rooms with vending machines and hot coffee.

If someone does not have an office but needs privacy, there are comfortable nooks and corners where to work in private, or large open areas where people can gather around a table with others to socialize and collaborate.

Office space starts at $550 a month and go up to $950 a month for a large studio. Utilities, Internet and 24/7 access are included.

One level of membership includes one of Huntsville West’s larger shared offices where two or three people can work. It isn’t quite a private office but allows you a private desk and the ability to leave your work and personal belongings overnight without having to carry them back and forth from home.

Huntsville West also offers day passes for potential members to try out the facilities; as well as a 5-day pass for $50 a month to use those five days anytime during a 30-day period. Membership comes with an app for your smartphone that tracks your time.

The concept for coworking space is less than 20 years old, but in many ways, it has saved much of the nation’s job force, said Malone.

“Corporations have saved a lot of overhead by downsizing office facilities and allowing their employees to work at remote locations,” he said. “It is also ideal for start-ups because we offer them all types of professional guidance and advice, as well as resources to give them a boost and help them step-by-step achieve their dreams.”

Sometimes coffee shops and restaurants are too loud; many places have limited Internet access; and working at home can be distracting, said Malone.

“You have none of that here,” he said. “You can grow at your own pace, and what excites me is seeing someone start out with a basic membership but in time, upgrade to a private office or go from a small office to a larger office.

“That means they are growing and accomplishing goals, which is what Brandon designed Huntsville West to do.”

Add to that an overall culture and environment that promotes collaboration, diversity, an exchange of ideas, and that has management that keeps people engaged and inspired to reach for their dreams. They offer free lunches that bring members of the community together, and provide classes and seminars on a wide variety of business topics like leadership skills; how to create a business plan; how to recognize it is time to get a business license; when to take certain steps, and when not to; even workshops to improve business skills and find solutions to challenges.

One such upcoming program Malone calls Working Women’s Wednesday aims to show working moms how to balance a career, kids, and marriage so they do not have to wait for the kids to leave home before she can pursue her dreams.

“We work to make Huntsville West a casual, friendly environment where you do not have to whisper as if you are in a library, and yet a place where everyone is working towards something big and takes their time here seriously,” said Malone. “We have experienced business people in their 60s and 70s working on starting up a new venture, sitting and sometimes even collaborating with a 19- or 20- year-old who doesn’t have a clue about business, but knows technology like the back their hand.

“To see that combination come together without a hierarchy of experience that says, ‘I am here and you are there’, is just amazing.”

Kruse, who is a software engineer and all-around techie, can be found hoverboarding through the halls of Huntsville West on any given day. He is creative in addition to his technological and business savvy and has the support from his father and grandfather who are successful Huntsville real estate executives. His mother, Penny Kruse, and her company, Interiors by Pennel, designed all of the contemporary interior space with its clean techie style and appealing colors.

Because West Huntsville Elementary opened in 1955, bringing its infrastructure up to technological standards that support fast Internet and Voice-over IP (VoIP) would be a problem for some, but when Google Fiber leases office space in your building, that problem is easily solved.

“We have a very creative team who works together to capitalize and get the most out of every inch of space so that it is comfortable, functional, and efficient,” said Malone. “We want Huntsville West to look like it was built as a coworking center that just happened to be used as a school for 50 years, rather than the other way around.”