Chattanooga, Tennessee, which has a population of just over 170,000 people, has some big selling points for the tech startup community. It has one of the fastest internet connection speeds in the country. It has a certain Southern charm. And now it has an easy way for entrepreneurs to "try out" the city before making a long-term commitment.

On Friday, the Tomorrow Building will open, becoming Chattanooga's first experiment in "co-living." A number of coastal cities have already jumped on what is essentially a more sophisticated twist on dorm life: entrepreneurs and creatives work and live in shared spaces with like-minded people.

The big idea behind the Tomorrow Building is its flexibility, designed to attract people who are new to the area. Rent for the one of the 39 microunits runs from $895 to $1200 a month. The units range in size from 300 to 700 square feet, and residents have the option of signing leases for three, six, or 12 months. In addition to their own units, residents have access to a shared living room, dining room, laundry facilities, and a collaborative space.

The project was spearheaded by Lamp Post Properties, the real estate arm of local venture capital firm Lamp Post Group. Stephanie Hays, the manager of the Tomorrow Building, says that as interest in moving to Chattanooga has grown (the population of Hamilton County, where Chattanooga is located, has grown by about 5.2 percent since 2010), Lamp Post Properties wanted to build spaces that would help these newcomers integrate seamlessly into the city's entrepreneurial community.

"We wanted to help people get situated, find a community, find their professional connections, have something to do, and the co-living model kind of made sense as a way to do that," Hays said.

Chattanooga garnered attention from the national tech scene in 2009, when it became one of the first cities to build its own fiber-optic network. Now at 10 gigabits per second, the city offers faster internet service than Google Fiber, which recently halted its expansion. A 2015 analysis from a professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga found that over the course of six years, the gig network helped generate 2,800 new jobs and added $865.3 million to the local economy (though some conservative think tank groups have said the benefits are outweighed by the amount of subsidies the city received to build the network).

Armed with a new selling point, Chattanooga's startup community sensed a chance to expand its footprint as well. The city has added several accelerators and incubators since 2009, including Gigtank (run by Co.Lab, another startup organization in the city,) an accelerator that specifically looks for startups that have created unique business models that can utilize the city's fiber optic network, and Dynamo, a logistics accelerator. The city also has a growing Innovation District, that's home to the one-year-old Edney Innovation Center, which serves as part co-working space, part educational community center.

Eventually, the city's stakeholders realized it was time to turn their attention to housing, so these new residents could have more places to live. Lamp Post Properties, which Lamp Post Group formally launched in 2010, works with other stakeholders in the Chattanooga community to identify which historical buildings in the city's downtown can be renovated. In addition to the Tomorrow Building, Lamp Post Properties is currently working on opening up two more office spaces next year.

To be sure, for all of the advantages the space may offer future residents, the co-living concept (and its presumed lack of privacy and space) isn't going to be an easy sell for everyone. Hays says only six tenants have signed leases so far--that leaves 33 units to fill.

But for the few currently living there, it was an easy decision. One resident is Alabama-native Chris Weller, who moved to Chattanooga in 2015 after Branch Technology, the construction-scale 3-D printing company he co-founded, was chosen to participate in the Gigtank accelerator. During the two-and-a-half monthlong Gigtank program, he and other accelerator participants lived in dorms at the University of Tennessee. Now, he's signed on for a yearlong lease in the Tomorrow Building to rekindle the sense of collaboration he felt at the accelerator.

"It was a really positive experience for me... it was nice to be in a space where there were like-minded people that you could bounce ideas off of," Weller says.

Most other well-known co-living buildings are on either coast. Common has locations in New York, San Francisco, and D.C. WeLive--launched by WeWork--has buildings in New York and Crystal City, Virginia. Still, Hays says co-living is a perfect fit for Chattanooga.

"We think that it actually kind of already fits with the whole nature of our community," she says. "That's usually what always strikes visitors first when they come here--just how well the community works together to achieve its goals."

Published on: Dec 9, 2016