‘Transformative’ CoBiz Richmond opens its doors

CoBiz Richmond 'Coming Out Stronger' amid COVID-19 crisis
CoBiz CEO Wesley Alexander (left) and CoBiz Community Manager Christina Kenney on opening day for the new co-working space and incubator at 1503 Macdonald Ave. in Richmond on Nov. 1, 2019.

CoBiz, the new state-of-the-art co-working space and business incubator that civic leaders are calling ground zero for the revitalization of Downtown Richmond, opened its doors today.

The modern, 9,000-square-foot CoBiz, located in the groundfloor space of the BART parking garage at 1503 Macdonald Ave. – and next to the new Richmond Food Hall – provides small businesses, innovators, nonprofits and freelance creatives in West Contra Costa County with cutting-edge technologies and collaborative spaces in the middle of the downtown’s transit center.

MC Hammer, the East Bay native and multimillion record-selling hip hop artist who has since transformed into a respected technology investor and entrepreneur, is reportedly set to be the first of many high-profile speakers at CoBiz, which aims to be a hub for entrepreneurial and nonprofit exchange. CoBiz features areas for TedX seminars, speaker series’, hacking events, podcasting, vlogging, even a communal kitchen. An on-site engineer can help with video editing and other requests. Like large technology companies, relaxation spaces are available for those needing to re-energize.

CoBiz is a modern co-working space with naturally-lit worksites, space for filming and recording podcasts, relaxation areas, a kitchen, and with access to a cafe and eatery in the next-door Richmond Food Hall.

Unlike typical coworking spaces, this one will offer professional connections that can be critical to project’s success, said Wesley Alexander, CEO of CoBiz. For local residents aiming to launch their businesses, CoBiz will offer access to personal and economic development resources, not just those offered by CoBiz but also from local nonprofit partners such as the Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center, Richmond Chamber of Commerce and Richmond Main Street Initiative. The concept is to create a rich networking environment that enhances ideas and provides exposure through collaboration.

“This is called coworking with a purpose,” Alexander said. “This is not just occupying a space.”

CoBiz is a project of the Chevron Richmond Refinery’s eQuip Richmond initiative, a multi-year $10 million investment that funds strategies to improve communities in Richmond and North Richmond by encouraging small business development, preparing residents for the workforce, and creating pathways to sustainable, living wages and careers in growth industries.

The project is a response to Silicon Valley’s broadening influence in the Bay Area, and aims to position Downtown Richmond to capitalize on its central location, affordability, connections to transit and an influx of housing units.

CoBiz is located in the groundfloor space of the BART parking garage at 1503 Macdonald Ave.

“The vision was to find a way to connect Richmond and the rest of West Contra Costa County to the economic vibrancy of the San Francisco Bay Area,” said Jim Becker, president and CEO of the Richmond Community Foundation, which is the lead agency of the eQuip initiative.

CoBiz was among the community-led ideas proposed at a Shark Tank-style competition at the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts in 2016. The competition challenged community leaders to come up with transformative projects, with winners earning funding from the Chevron eQuip Richmond initiative.

The concept for CoBiz was first pitched by Bret Sweet, who, like MC Hammer, is a hip hop artist and entrepreneur known, in part, for pioneering music sharing online in the 1990s. Sweet is program director of the Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center in Richmond, the nonprofit that helps underserved Bay Area residents launch businesses. He approached Amanda Elliott, the recently departed executive director of the Richmond Main Street Initiative, about the idea of creating a first-of-its kind co-working and incubator space downtown.

“I had spent a number of years building out startups for investors at other co-working spaces and incubators in Oakland, and I was disappointed when I saw that entrepreneurial prosperity was not traveling beyond Berkeley and Oakland borders,” Sweet said.

CoBiz will benefit from its swift access to BART, Amtrak, AC Transit, the freeway, bicycle lane access and repair (the Rich City Rides bike shop is located just across the street) and connections to the new Richmond Ferry. It will also benefit from thousands of new housing units planned for Richmond, including a proposed mixed-use development at 12th Street and Macdonald Avenue that could bring nearly 400 residential units.

CoBiz is also seen as a solution for Silicon Valley companies whose employees are increasingly looking to Richmond for affordable housing.

“One of the things we’re hearing from a lot of companies is our employees are moving your way,” Becker said. “That just means their commute is a lot longer. With CoBiz, they now have a state-of-the-art spot where they can work remotely, either full time or a few days per week, allowing them to be more productive and to ultimately enjoy a better quality of life.”

With increased foot traffic at 1503 Macdonald Ave., some believe CoBiz will present opportunities for new restaurants, cafes and other shops to open up on Macdonald Avenue.

CoBiz offers a soundproofed “creative space” for vlogging, podcasting, video editing and more.

Sweet believes the CoBiz model will be “studied in the future.” He likens the concept to the collaboration accomplished during WWII, where Richmond became an epicenter for shipbuilding and innovation – such as the pioneering of the wonder drug, penicillin – through collaboration by local industry, government agencies, education centers and the business community.

A present-day collaboration involving Chevron, the city and local nonprofits aims to usher in a new age of technological innovation.

“Our focus is on delivering economic development in an equitable fashion,” Alexander said. “A lot of people in this community are driven to be part of that goal. They see what’s happening around the Bay. They also see they can be part of something that produces a different narrative. We want to facilitate those resources in this space and do it in a manner in which everyone can have access.”

CoBiz will be open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. for nonmembers, while members can access the building 24/7, Alexander said.

CoBiz is the third core program launched by the Chevron eQuip Richmond Initiative. Other projects include the Construction Resource Center, which works to prepare local residents, contractors and construction companies for future economic development projects in the region, as well as Pogo Park Products, a for-profit social enterprise staffed entirely by Iron Triangle residents that designs and builds parks and park amenities.

Lily Rahnema, community engagement manager for Chevron Richmond, said eQuip aims to improve the quality of life in Richmond and North Richmond by leveraging investments of other community businesses, foundations, institutions and individuals.

“From space, to technology, to access to capital, CoBiz will provide top of the line services to a traditionally under resourced part of the Bay Area, nurturing Richmond’s entrepreneurs.  Chevron’s ongoing commitment beyond the initial seed funding is to set the foundation for partnerships using CoBiz as a platform, that can build capacity, fill jobs with local hires, and improve conditions for local residents,” Rahnema said.

CoBiz’s coworking space features a kitchen, and is right next door to the Richmond Food Hall that offers Red Bay Coffee and Roux.