Up to the Challenge: The Troy Innovation Garage Blazes a New Business Trail
When most people want a challenge, they change their workout routine, take up a hobby, or ask for a work promotion. When Tom Nardacci wants a challenge, he gives a $1.5-million makeover to a derelict historical building and starts a brand-new company: the Troy Innovation Garage, a combination coworking space and business incubator in downtown Troy.
A native of Rensselaer, Nardacci built a successful career in communications and public affairs in Washington, D.C., and New York City. He returned upstate a decade ago and started Gramercy Communications in Troy. The PR firm has since grown to 15 employees, and has represented clients like Albany International Airport, Rivers Casino & Resort, Breathing Lights, and Pioneer Bank.
Two years ago, Nardacci began looking at acquiring smaller communications firms, including one in Buffalo. While there, he toured incubator 43North and Dig, a 6,000-square-foot coworking space. “The whole drive back from Buffalo, I couldn’t stop thinking about the idea of a coworking space,” Nardacci recalls. “When I got back, I immediately started researching, to figure out what our area needed.”
He went on a tour of about 50 coworking spaces and incubators across the country, from the massive Cambridge Innovation Center near Boston to the diminutive Indy Hall in Philadelphia. An ardent DIY-er—he has renovated multifamily houses in Albany and Troy—Nardacci decided that instead of buying a slick, ready-to-move-in space, he’d transform one of the many empty buildings in downtown Troy.
On a neglected block of Fourth Street, Nardacci found his location. “I kept walking past this building and thinking, This is terrible, but it’s perfect.” The 14,000-square-foot building, which was rebuilt in 1871, after the devastating 1862 fire that wiped out much of the downtown’s 4th Ward, experienced its heyday as the Troy Automobile Exchange, a high-end car dealership, from 1900 to 1920. Other tenants came and went. The space sat, vacant and crumbling, for more than 30 years.
Working with the Troy-based 3T Architects, Nardacci started renovations in February 2016. Strict guidelines had to be followed for the historic exterior, especially the Art Deco façade. Inside, the building’s history as a garage informed the open plan and industrial décor. The Garage had its soft launch in October 2016, and grand opening in March 2017. Total cost: nearly $1.5 million—about double Nardacci’s original budget.
Nardacci was resolute in wanting the Troy Innovation Garage to be distinctive from many coworking spaces, which are intended for solopreneurs and freelancers, by having one eye toward supporting the solo worker and the other toward helping small businesses grow. To this end, the upstairs space combines coworking tables and desks, four-seater booths, and small and large conference rooms, while the downstairs offers private suites and a break room.
To cater to early birds, night owls, and every working critter in between, the Garage is open 24/7. It’s equipped with superfast WiFi and onsite IT support, as well as color printing. The Garage also offers educational lunch-and-learn workshops and panel discussions, plus social get-togethers. And the space is available to rent for business retreats and special events.
Nardacci planned the centrally located coffee and snack bar specifically to facilitate interaction. “A big part of what we’re doing here is social,” he explains. “This is especially important for people who typically work at home or out of coffee shops. Say I’m a solopreneur. Now I have 100 coworkers, from all different companies and backgrounds. There’s a camaraderie; it’s not just for business networking.” He even moved Gramercy’s home base to the back office at the Garage, partly to give them room to grow and partly to encourage engagement with Garage members.
Garage members can purchase a day ($25), 5-day ($100), or monthly ($350) pass. Even the private-suite leases ($800 to $1,100) are month-to-month, making it “easier than a gym membership to get out of,” according to Nardacci. While the majority of members are from Troy, some travel from Cooperstown, Saratoga, the Hudson Valley, and Berkshires. On any given day, the space is used by up to 40 people.
The gamble seems to be paying off. The Troy Innovation Garage now has 65 members, CDTA has invested in creating a terminal across the street, and several of the nearby properties that have been vacant and undervalued for decades are attracting renewed attention.
Up next is the summer debut of Spark Exchange, a three-year, nonprofit incubator program. New businesses that are accepted into the program can work in the Garage rent-free, connect with mentors and potential investors, and attend a weekly guest-speaker series, plus take part in a six-month educational program.
But Nardacci is already thinking ahead to the next challenge: taking the Troy Innovation Garage concept to other cities in the region. “Every day I walk out here and I see someone new,” Nardacci says. “Seeing them connect and work on something together—seeing the business and social relationships that develop—has been really rewarding. I want people in other areas to experience this.”
This article first appeared in the May 2017 issue of Berkshire HomeStyle.