Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff Photo
Lars Hasselblad-Torres sits in a common area at the community workspace Local 64 in downtown Montpelier.
MONTPELIER — In these days of incredible technological connectivity the old exhortation to think globally and act locally has been upended by the ability of anyone with a Wi-Fi connection and a smartphone to have skin in the game be it political, social or cultural. Armchair dreamers can now leverage this new age of connectivity to shape change from as near as the corner store to continents away. And Cabot resident Lars Hasselblad-Torres dreams big.
“We should be building technological core competencies in school,” he says enthusiastically about a Vermont future in which science and math education take center stage. “Middle school kids should be learning (programming languages) C, Java and HTML. We have a need to be training young people to make their own way.”
Artist and entrepreneur, technological enthusiast and inveterate people connector, Hasselblad-Torres is a vocal advocate for a Vermont future in which high-tech game designers share building space with artisan chocolatiers, and where dairy farms and energy farms sit adjacent on the hillsides.
“We need to recognize that density and the clustering of skills and ideas is good for innovation,” Hasselblad-Torres recently told the House Committee on Economic Development. “Let's make co-working part of the way we understand community economic development.”
To that end, Hasselblad-Torres is walking the talk. In June he leased office space on an upper floor on State Street where he launched Local 64, central Vermont's first co-working hub. Today, more than 30 members use the space that Hasselblad-Torres describes as a “little bit lounge and a little bit hive.”
Membership fees range from $15 for a one-day pass to $175 a month for a desk of one's own.
On this early morning there's a lot of buzz. Paintings from a recent art show are propped against the wall. A young woman is perched in a corner lounge chair in apparent solo reverie, speaking directly into the air in front of her. This is quickly revealed as a meeting in progress, albeit telephonically.
There's no corner office here, just a comfortable perch in a corner. The hive metaphor is apt. There's a palpable hum of energy in the space.
“To the great consternation of my family, I don't really have a master plan,” Hasselblad-Torres says with humor. “But I think there are three areas about which I am passionate: the arts, education, and the intersection between technology and participation in community. I'm looking for opportunities to get all three elements synched up.”
According to Joe Bookchin, head of the state Office of Creative Economy, Hasselblad-Torres could have an important role in how the state looks toward the future.
“Lars has an enviable skill set to accomplish such a task,” says Bookchin, “and with the establishment in Montpelier of Local 64, he is ably positioned to speak to a high-tech Vermont future.”
Hasselblad-Torres, who is in his early 40s, was raised in an atmosphere of service. His mother was a social worker and sociologist who worked in Asia and Africa while he was a child.
His college education brought him from Southern California, to Washington, D.C.'s Corcoran Museum School, to Brattleboro's School for International Training. He has worked with young adults living in the municipal dumps of Senegal. His work for the advocacy group America Speaks, where he was a field researcher, led to a stint at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he directed the launch of a program during the school's 150th anniversary to create community service by alumni.
Since landing in Vermont he has gone from helping more than 400 Twinfield Union School students create a mural of Peace Tiles at the school, to winning a statewide contest for a beginner-friendly website. This winter, instead of sitting by the woodstove, he launched the Cabot Chili Cook-off followed by a snow sculpture contest.
It is this fluid ability to move from discussions of the high-tech world of cloud conferencing and TED talks to the proper seasoning for a vegetarian chili that is the hallmark of the integrative work-play culture that Hasselblad-Torres and Local 64 embody. It's art openings and game nights back-to-back with a “pitch kitchen” where would-be entrepreneurs can roll out their ideas before an appreciate audience of like individuals and financial angels.
“One of the ways that Local 64 is succeeding is that partnership with the community and the synergy that comes out of it is one of the elements of its success,” Bookchin adds. “We're talking about a future with one-, two- and three-person companies. And you might have 15 of them. So if one doesn't work out, others remain.”
Linda Setchell likes to joke that she moved into her space at Local 64 before the ink was signed on the lease. “Lars was still putting together the furniture when I moved in.”
Setchell had moved to Vermont from Florida in 2005 to take a job in the nonprofit sector doing web marketing. She moved on to launch her own business, Grow Internet Marketing, a few years later. These days she has clients in New York and Boston, as well as such home-grown Vermont businesses as Nutty Steph's, the Middlesex-based chocolatier.
She had a friend who had participated in a co-working space in South America and was intrigued by the idea of moving her business out of her home. One of the clearest benefits, she says, has been the opportunity to see people on a day-to-day basis.
“I say get out, get out, get out of your house,” she says. “I have a lot more opportunity now to meet with people face to face, and that is really important, and my clients really like that.”
If Hasselblad-Torres has any say, the future of co-working won't end with Local 64 or its Burlington equivalent, Office Squared. He has recently written a white paper for the Vermont Center for Emerging Technologies that illustrates what he calls the “value proposition” in co-working. In the meantime, he envisions that it may take five years or so before Local 64 reaches optimum size.
“I would like to see the model of Local 64 adopted to succeed in other towns. This is something that can work in so many places. But it will be down the road before it becomes profitable. It will be interesting to research how the lines of income from Local 64 flows out into the community.”
While the conversation about creative economies and technology has been taking place around the state for the past decade, there's a palpable change to the environment in which that conversation is taking place. Game designers are appearing before the Legislature, the University of Vermont has opened its first “makers lab” equipped with a 3D printer, and our local schools are debating the future of technology education in the state. It is a heady atmosphere and one in which Hasselblad-Torres seems to thrive, a generous presence, always looking to give credit to others and delighting in the opportunity to make connection, to make community.
“There are a lot of people headed in the same direction,” he says. “We are just looking for the synergy.”
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