Making space for collaboration

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Maureen Ballatori is an entrepreneur whose ambitions extend beyond growing her own business. She aims to develop ecosystems for small businesses like hers to grow and thrive.

“I think that there is a lot of value in creating something that works for me that with a little extra effort can also work 10 times,” says the 35-year-old Ballatori, who owns 29 Design Studio and is a partner in Port 100, a coworking community in Geneva and downtown Rochester. 

Along with developer Craig Webster of Webster Properties, Ballatori is also spearheading Metro Collective, which aims to unite collaborative spaces across sectors. Some of Webster’s properties—Metro Park, High Falls Business Center and Made on State (all formerly under the brand Metro Cowork, also a coworking community)—are expected to become part of Metro Collective.

“The collective is a natural fit for me as a developer of real estate and (an) entrepreneur,” Webster says. “The collective’s ability to focus on a broad range of collaborative spaces, ideas, and people helps give us an edge. Whether it be a coworking member, a business in one of our properties, or guest visiting our salon in Brighton, The Mens Room, it engages people, it encourages growth and emphasizes all the great things going on around Rochester and the Finger Lakes.”

Maureen Ballatori
(Photos courtesy of Maureen Ballatori)

While Metro Collective hasn’t been formally launched, Ballatori says there is pent-up demand for such a solution. The ultimate goal is to create a community where members can bounce ideas off each other, connect, and consult in person or online.

“This Metro Collective concept is meant to help give that unification to the people in the artists space, the businesses in Geneva Enterprise Development Center, creating a thread for all of these people to find the space that works for them to find their people,” Ballatori says. “And then we’re uniting them with this platform that is an in-person and a virtual network of these people in these spaces.”

The idea is taking shape in the Whiting Building at 350 East Ave. A property owned by Webster, the building has coworking spaces for Port 100; residential units, including Abodes ApartHotel, and Need suites; a coworking model for salons where personal care experts like hair stylists can have their own workspaces. 

Boutique real estate firm Tru Agent is also housed in the building and has collaborated with the collective by hosting a virtual Q&A session on home values and the state of the real estate market. The Riot Room, a bar and art gallery with games and a smash-it-up demolition room, anchors the first floor.

“It is the showpiece,” Ballatori says of the Whiting Building. “So, then we can start quickly and easily start concepts here to see how they do exactly like Need suites on the first floor. We built out four suites to start.”

Webster concurs: “The Whiting Building is the perfect example of what the collective can do to support a collaborative building.”

Initial interest in Need suites—three of the four spaces are rented—has prompted a similar salon-suites operation across Pittsford Plaza. On the coworking front, the Rochester Port 100 location has roughly 15 members. The Geneva site has 20. 

“What I think works really well for Port 100 cowork, and from that economic development perspective, is offering the building blocks that small businesses need to help themselves be successful,” she says. “So, we can create affordable spaces (where) a small business can get what they need to be able to start and grow up and out, create jobs.”

Ballatori speaks from experience. 29 Design Studio has grown to 10 employees over the last five years in a coworking environment, learning and sharing ideas with others. Ballatori was a member of a coworking space in Geneva, now Port 100. City officials, through a state grant, transformed a vacant building to create an office hub for entrepreneurs. The plan was to underwrite the effort for three years, says Ballatori, who managed that space while she worked there.

When the three years were up, she decided to take over the space. Ballatori worked with Ontario County officials to help underwrite the rent, she says. The facility then incorporated semi-private offices in response to members’ needs and assisted entrepreneurs with programming such as business development and social media marketing. 

At the same time, Ballatori was growing her own business, carving a niche in the agriculture, food and beverage space with clients such as RealEats, Leep Foods and Brewery Ardennes. Her agency, which also was behind the rebranding of Imagine Monroe, is up for four Best of NAMA awards, hosted by the National Agri-Marketing Association.

It was Ballatori’s success with the coworking model in Geneva attracted Webster’s attention. 

“Maureen is a very talented businesswoman,” Webster says. “We connected immediately and knew there would be some great opportunities we could create together. She is extremely talented and sought after in her industry and I’m extremely grateful to have her as my partner.”

While the Whiting Building had a rough start during the pandemic last year, things are starting to look up. The suites and offices are humming with activity. Webster hopes the effort will result in a model environment that can be replicated in other parts of Rochester and beyond.

While Rochester has other coworking options like Spot Cowork and separate efforts to grow small businesses with state-funded initiatives and incubators, Ballatori doesn’t view them as competition. Her clients, for example, use NextCorps’ resources often.

“Once Metro Collective launches, our intention is to go to all of those (initiatives) and say, ‘Let’s get what you’re doing into this Metro Collective network,” she says. “It doesn’t have to be just stuff that I’ve built, or that Craig has built. It’s meant to be a true collaborative resource.”

Supporting small businesses lies at its core.

“It makes sense to help support the small businesses because that’s where the fresh ideas come from,” Ballatori says. “So, it makes it a better place for me and my family to live and my friends to take their kids and graduates to stay here and incubate their new idea in this region.”

Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor.

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