Less than one year ago, at 25-27 McNamara Street in the regional NSW town of Orange stood a rundown St Vincent de Paul.
Today, in its place, stands a brand new co-working space called Hive Orange, which plays home to a mix of dreamy pink, blue and grey painted permanent offices, hot-desking workspaces, and lush-looking boardrooms.
The brains behind Hive belong to Prue, 35, and Andrew Swain, 36, who clocked an unmet need for a classy, professional shared office space in Orange’s central business district after a grain trader friend, James Clifton from CL Commodities, complained he was struggling to find a decent place to work.
The couple set out to find the perfect building to create a co-working space that would not only be a good business, but could also generate a broader array of networking, social and community benefits among Orange’s growing bevy of professionals.
Initially, Prue says, not everyone “got” her vision. But soon after closing the deal on the St Vincent de Paul property for a purchase price of $1.3 million, the duo began an intense and expensive four-month renovation.
The inside of the building is now almost unrecognisable to those who grew up knowing the space as the go-to destination for second-hand clothing and a quaint downstairs bakery called Kelly’s Bakehouse.
A phone app called Kisi enables building and room access for “Hivers”, and each room is decked out with hand sanitiser produced by local gin distillery Parrot.
The timing in opening Hive’s doors was both terrible and perfect all at once.
It officially opened during the first week of the NSW March COVID-19 lockdowns. Government orders were put in place telling those who could work from home to do so, and some of Hive’s early tenants had to pull out.
But soon, a different longer-term trend began to take shape – the greater cultural acceptance of remote and flexible working options.
The great working-from-home experiment of 2020 has led some companies and employees alike to re-assess the trade-offs behind the more traditional Sydney, Brisbane, Perth and Melbourne CBD approach to work and office spaces.
Real estate agents in Orange say general inquiries for both residential and commercial spaces from clients based in capital cities have tripled since March.
Meanwhile, Doug Merritt, the CEO of San Francisco-based Splunk, told The Australian Financial Review that his American multinational software and data analytics company had been discussing the possibility of shifting from an office network based on capital cities with hundreds of employees in each to having more offices in smaller cities and towns with teams of about 15 to 20 people.
It is places like Hive that help make those ideas percolating under the surface more tenable and attractive.
It costs about $250 a week to rent a permanent office upstairs at Hive, drop-in hot-desking is $25 a day, training rooms $400 a day, and boardrooms $250 a day or $180 for half-days.
For one of Hive’s permanent tenants, Andrew Logan, this space could not have come sooner.
Logan has since 2017 been the chief executive of OneCrop, a company that manufactures biodegradable mulch film in China for growing cotton, corn and hemp that is sold in Australia, the United States, and China.
He grew up in Orange, then spent 20 years in Sydney, including as head of business development at KPMG Sydney in Barangaroo, before moving back to the region with his then-wife and their kids.
Logan doesn’t miss Sydney traffic or parking, but finessing his work set-up has taken some time. He has tried leasing office space in town, working from home, and even working out of the Department of Industry and Trade (which set up camp in Orange 1988). None of these options ever fully satiated his need for a sense of incidental community.
“The big challenge with regional towns, and certainly Orange, I have found, is that if you weren’t working in a company office, it can be very isolating. And that isolation is a real challenge for people I think moving to regional communities where they are working remotely for a company, or where they are working for themselves,” Logan says.
“Before Hive, I probably spent four or five years working pretty much on my own, and I’m not that sort of person – I like having people around. And I think that that’s the biggest problem that Hive solves, because the benefits of coming to a regional community are many and vast, but the isolation problem – that is real.”
Beyond the need for social contact, he said the need for things like solid internet and decent meeting rooms made working from home longer term super tricky.
“When you have a facility like Hive, it takes working in a regional are from being something that’s possible, to something that actually really works. You don’t have any compromise really, at all. You can work from Hive as effectively as you can work between George Street and North Sydney,” Mr Logan says.
Jock Whittle, Macquarie Group-managed Paraway Pastoral chief executive, plans to make the most of Hive’s various meeting rooms and facilities as an extension of his existing work setup.
In 2015, he opened Macquarie’s office in Orange, where he employs around 30 people. Born and raised in the Central West region, Whittle was always keen to raise his family in the region.
“There are a lot of people relocating from Sydney with some really exciting skill-sets. This has been going on for a decade or so, but a lot of people have had to commute back to Sydney. Obviously now, there is a greater acceptance of flexible working, and Hive creates a place where people can go and work professionally in a professional location,” Whittle says.
“It will be really interesting to see what other opportunities come from bringing all these people together into one workspace.”
Asked if there were any misconceptions about working from a regional centre, Mr Whittle responded that he thinks that everyone out here works just as hard.
“It’s a different thing if you’re looking to come out to Orange for a slower pace of life. A lot of people do that. But certainly the move for us and our team was to come out here and maintain a high performance level. It’s obviously an easier commute and probably an easier place to live depending on what you’re interested in, but I think in terms of the work and the professionalism, it isn’t that different,” Whittle says.
In her mid twenties, fashion designer Jacqui Hayes is one of Hive’s younger tenants.
Her sister thought she was “crazy” when she first decided to move back home to Orange from Sydney two years ago. This was not the traditional Millennial dream. And admittedly, her first week back was pretty rough.
She had just broken up with a long-term boyfriend, was sleeping on a mattress in her parent’s house and someone had crashed into her car, rendering it undrivable. Hayes laughs now at the memory, saying that she knew in her heart then that it was “only up from here”.
Having worked at Australian fashion labels including Sass & Bide and Ellery in Sydney, she set to work carefully crafting her very own fashion label Barney and Jacq, which launched its first collection in October.
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Hayes shares a permanent office space with Kristy Withers, the powerhouse behind the business incy interiors, who she met at a local networking event.
The move back to Orange has been a slow-burn love affair for the former Sydney-based St. George Bank and eBay marketing executive. But now, Withers cannot imagine being anywhere else.
“I just feel excited about it all, and about the potential. I am an extreme extrovert. I totally get my energy from people. So this is really cool and I just love that there is something inspiring,” Withers says.
Orange City Council chief executive officer David Waddell has lived in town for 15 years, having moved to Orange from Sydney.
When he first arrived, there were about two places in town to buy a coffee. In the intervening years, 52 development approvals have passed through council to set-up coffee shops.
The economy of Orange itself is comparatively diversified for a regional town of its population size – from mining, to healthcare, to food, wine and agriculture, social services, and education, including Charles Sturt University.
Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning researcher Fiona McKenzie says that since 2001, Orange has seen declines in agriculture, manufacturing and wholesale trade – a trend common to many parts of Australia – with Orange experiencing manufacturing decline greater than the regional NSW average.
She says that this trend was largely driven by modernisation within specific businesses, such as the establishment of the large Coles-Myer distribution centre in Goulburn, but has also been accompanied by a strong increase in professional, scientific and technical services during the period.
“I think that Hive is another part of attracting good, young people back to Orange. This is attracting people from Sydney, who will see like-minded professionals in the same space, they’re not losing their connections, it feels hipster, it’s all just part of that ramping up,” Waddell says.
Even as Qantas drastically cuts its international and domestic capacity due to the aviation nightmare generated by the pandemic, from July 20, the airline is adding a route from Sydney to Orange, bringing the total number of carriers flying to the town to three.
The “hub” office model has cropped up in other regional towns. Jillian Kilby revamped an old post office in Dubbo in 2018 into a co-working space called The Exchange and in Bathurst, a state and local government backed place called Upstairs Startup Hub opened in the same year.
And people from both Narromine Shire Council and the town of Forbes have reached out to Prue for tips and tricks on how they can get their own equivalent spaces set up.
It must be noted, however, that unmet need does not equate to an automatic success story. Wagga Wagga locals say that a similar type of venture called HubbHubb was overpriced for what it offered and is now set to close.
But the paradigm shift in how people think about their work set-ups due to the COVID-19 lockdowns is breathing new life into the possibility for regional hubs.
“Everybody that walks in here is