New Leaf hopes community hub improves life in region

As a student at Penn State, Serena Fulton never thought beyond downtown State College.

“This area was always marketed to me as Penn State, and ended at Beaver Avenue,” Fulton said. “I didn’t know what else went beyond that.”

Now, the 2013 graduate and co-director of the New Leaf Initiative is helping to connect the community in ways she didn’t understand as a student.

The New Leaf Initiative is a nonprofit organization that works as a community hub through a process known as coworking, which involves a shared work space for independent activity, Fulton said.

The idea is to connect people and ideas to benefit the Centre Region. Fulton and partner Eric Sauder lead the initiative. Innovators, entrepreneurs and local business owners are examples of who might use the space to work and connect.

After eight months of preparation, New Leaf will open its new office space Wednesday in the State College Municipal Building on South Allen Street. The grand opening will be from 4 to 7 p.m. Wednesday. An open house will be held from 4 to 6 p.m., with food and live music. A ribbon-cutting will follow.

“A lot of these people might be currently working out of their homes or coffee shops and are distracted or lacking space in the community,” Fulton said.

The work-space model has grown from 800 to 3,000 offices across the United States in two years.

“It’s a bit of a movement,” she said. “It’s one word, no dash, just coworking.”

“We saw the collective resources in this community as being able to really meet a lot of challenges, but that they’re very siloed because of the different sectors they exist in right now,” Fulton said. “So the goal with the space is to create this neutral, accessible location for them to all connect together, to kind of cross paths when they wouldn’t normally do so.”

Timothy Simpson, a professor of mechanical and industrial engineering at Penn State, is one of the first coworkers to use the New Leaf space.

“Timingwise, this has been ideal,” said Simpson, who is on a sabbatical this year. He is using the space to study the commercialization of ideas, as well as 3-D printing.

Simpson is enthusiastic about the possibilities New Leaf will provide for bridging the gap between students and the community.

“Part of what’s going on now is you’re connecting the connectors,” Simpson said. “So within the university, I direct my network to New Leaf and then they can connect them to their network.”

Founded in 2010 by Sauder, Spud Marshall and Christian Baum, New Leaf came to fruition after Sauder and Marshall worked on sustainability initiatives in Jamaica and Haiti.

Marshall also had spent time in Sweden earning his master’s degree in strategic sustainability leadership.

They teamed up with Baum to create space where people could carry out their own projects and initiatives.

It was an experiment from the beginning, but the goal has always been to create positive social change, Fulton said. She came on board in the fall of 2011 as an intern.

New Leaf had a small, basement location below Dunkin’ Donuts on South Fraser Street for the past three years. The organization shifted focus multiple times before it began hosting community forums.

“Some of them were super-unsuccessful. Some of them were successful at first and then died, and some of them made things happen,” said Fulton. “We brought a group of local food advocates together, farmers and students, and they were able to get a locally sourced meal in the dining halls.”

Momentum from successes propelled New Leaf into its move to a bigger space, with even bigger plans.

“We started learning about coworking, and it was, like, ‘Perfect, that’s the solution to what New Life could be,’ because for three years it was trying to find a model that would sustain itself,” said Fulton

The organization received a grant through the Centre Foundation from the Knight Foundation fund for $75,000, which gave it the leverage to move ahead.

In the fall, the New Leaf team visited Toronto to study seven coworking spaces.

Coworking memberships are offered in three packages, each by the number of desk-hours guaranteed. For 10 hours per week, coworkers will pay $150 a month. For 20 hours, the rate is $250, and for 40 hours $450. Only members will have access to the space from 8 a.m. to noon.

About 25 coworkers have signed on. Seven slots remain until New Leaf reaches its coworking capacity.

New Leaf is also offering community partnerships. Group partnerships cost $150 per year, with a student rate of $100. Individual partnerships are $75 per year and $50 for students.

Community partners will have access to the space after noon. The space will be open to the public at that time, as well; however, Internet access for the public will be restricted. Fulton hopes that if community members are using the space enough, they will become partners.

New Leaf’s bright, new, contemporary office has 2,600 square feet for work and play, with space for social gatherings as well as two private meeting rooms to rent.

“We’re excited for Feb. 6, the day after our grand opening,” Fulton said. “We keep saying, like, ‘What does Feb. 6 look like?’ We don’t know!”

Information about memberships or renting space is on the New Leaf Initiative’s website,