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How One Coworking Space is Revitalizing the Seattle Chinatown International District

by Cat Johnson

Hing Hay Coworks is on a mission to support economic development in the Seattle Chinatown International District (CID). The most ethnically diverse neighborhood in Seattle, the CID is home to immigrants and small businesses that reflect the region’s unique Pan-Asian culture.

The CID also faces serious challenges, with 34 percent of residents—many of whom are seniors—living at or below the poverty level. The area has among the poorest health outcomes in the county, and public safety, homelessness and public sanitation are ongoing issues. CID residents and small businesses also face development pressures that threaten to displace them.

Hing Hay Coworks, a nonprofit-run, collaborative workspace and community development hub, aims to “catalyze the chances of success for businesses in the neighborhood.” Home to local entrepreneurs, freelancers, startups, and community organizations, Hing Hay Coworks is housed in a building that was once a Korean restaurant before sitting vacant for 10 years. The project is part of the Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority, whose mission is to preserve, promote, and develop the CID.

I spoke with Hing Hay Coworks Program Supervisor Eliza Chan about the importance of supporting neighborhood businesses and entrepreneurs, the unique challenges Hing Hay Coworks faces as a nonprofit-run coworking space in Seattle, and how people can fight the negative aspects of gentrification in the area. Here are the highlights of our conversation.

Cat Johnson: What are the strengths of Hing Hay Coworks? What separates it from other coworking spaces?

Eliza Chan: We have a mission and goal to support economic development in the CID, so one of our strengths is the fact that we’re less tech than some other coworking spaces. We have so many people in here and it’s not just one person or one field. You really can find what you’re looking for and if you can’t find it here, our members have connections elsewhere.

Our neighborhood is primarily retail and restaurants, but we want people to come here for more than just that. We want people to come here to find someone to build their website. We want people to think of the International District for those types of services.

People who are members bring their clients here. They’ll go out and have lunch in the neighborhood or spend money and return capital to the neighborhood. Our largest goal is to be able to have a business start here, incubate, then move into the neighborhood to create a full circle.

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The Spring Clean neighborhood cleanup in Seattle’s Chinatown International District

Do neighborhood businesses come to Hing Hay Coworks when they need marketing or a website?

We’d love to get to that point. As we continue doing our business resource programming, I think we will eventually be known as a place to come for whatever needs you might have.

But a lot of the problem with some of the businesses in this area is they don’t know what problems they have. And a lot of them don’t have enough people to work in their business, so they never have a free chance to come and talk to us to figure out what they need.

We’re working with the public library right now to start doing one-on-one outreach to find out what people need. A lot of neighborhood residents have English as a second language but to a very basic level, so it’s nice to be able to offer interpretation to them. Having a conversation is a good starting point.

What are some of the challenges the Hing Hay Coworks team is working on?

It’s about awareness and getting more people through the door. The struggles we face as a nonprofit are different than the struggles a for-profit coworking space faces. A lot of our struggle has to do with funding—being able to do the cool, fun things to be able to, not only establish yourself, but market yourself as a place people want to be.

What we do have going for us is the fact that we know people are here because they want to be here—whether it’s because of our mission or our location. We have a darn good location, right off of transit and with a 180 degree view of Hing Hay Park. We like to say there’s never a dull day at Hing Hay, because it’s Hing Hay Park and we’re Hing Hay Coworks. There’s always something going on and you can actually be downtown without being downtown. It’s only a 10 minute walk to downtown but you don’t have to be into the vibe of it if you don’t want to be.

Part of our struggle is messaging: who are we and how to get Hing Hay Coworks out there. We know who were are, but other people don’t know who we are.

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What would you like people to know about Hing Hay Coworks? What’s the big draw for members?

Location is one big draw. We’re 98 on the walking score and we’re right off major transit.
Then the community—not only the folks in the space but the actual sense of community of being in a neighborhood that is so cultured. You have so many things happening around you, and so many changes, you can be part of improving a neighborhood without coming in and changing everything.

Gentrification is a huge problem here, so being able to support the neighborhood without contributing to the negative effects of gentrification—being able to improve the quality of this neighborhood just by your presence alone—is important. You’re still getting your work done, you’re still going to be able to create the connections you need, and the people are freaking cool too.

And Hing Hay Coworks is affordable. In terms of coworking rates, we’re low on the scale. We don’t charge extra for meeting rooms or for printing. All of that is inclusive with our membership. We also offer a 20% discount for the first two months for new members and we do month-to-month because we know that, as a freelancer or solopreneur, things are not always set in stone so we don’t want you to be set in stone. We want you to be able to grow and, if you don’t find that you’re growing here, that’s fine, we can recommend other spaces within the Seattle Collaborative Space Alliance.

That’s the whole mission of the space. If someone isn’t growing here, we want them to succeed somewhere else and we’re able to point you in the right direction. We’ve had people move into the neighborhood because they liked the location, but the coworking environment wasn’t for them. We worked with an in-house person to find them office space in the neighborhood.

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What’s your relationship with the other member spaces of the Seattle Collaborative Space Alliance? How does Hing Hay fit into the community?

I am an avid fan of the Collaborative Space Alliance. It’s a great idea. Coworking is much more than having a place to work, it’s about your professional growth and the way you feel as a member in that space. You can’t succeed if you feel like you don’t fit and the community is not the right one for you.

Not every space is right for every person. We get a lot of large marketing groups who come in, which is great, but our setup isn’t made for groups larger than four. We can make it work, but I can also help you find a space that is designed for you. We want you to succeed, so I send people to the Collaborative Space Alliance website and I give recommendations depending on where they’re located and the vibe they’re going for.

I would like to do more with the alliance to figure out what more we could be doing, and how we can all benefit each other. The financial stability of everyone is dependent on everyone succeeding. We’re not going to be the bad guys and say, “Don’t go here,” or “Don’t go there.” We want you to succeed, even if that success means that you’re better suited for someplace else.

One aspect of Hing Hay is to bring together old and new ideas and resources to “change the odds for the success of the neighborhood.” Anything you want to share about that?

For a lot of people, the CID is just a place to go get drunk food at 2 a.m. or go shop at some of the stores. We’re more than that, we have a lot of culture.

The majority of folks who live in the neighborhood are seniors, so we want to support what’s going on here to build on this culture, and also bring the young people in to care about it. There’s not a lack of caring, per se, but I think a lot of people don’t understand why they should care.

We’re saying that there is a reason and we should care. We are a community that is strong, and these are the things we’re trying to do—not just as an organization, but everyone in the neighborhood.

Hing Hay Coworks will host the second annual Summer Arts & Crafts Fair on Thursday, July 20, from 6-9 p.m. The maker and crafters fair features Asian American and Pacific Islander artists and crafters for an evening of fun in the CID. More information: http://bit.ly/2rYvP1t