"Can you open this?" she asked,holding out a bottle of cabernet and a crappy corkscrew. I'm not usually one to blend bartending with business, but when Katie Ball - award-winning photographer, public radio producer, persuasive local culture promoter and newly minted director of programming for Urban ReThink - is paying for the wine, who am I to say no? But while the two-to-one ratio of bottles to attendees might imply otherwise, this wasn't just a silly party, but a serious sit-down to suss out the answer to Orlando's hottest question: Just what the heck is Urban ReThink?
Let's begin with what Urban ReThink isn't - a bookstore. Urban Think, the independent Thornton Park book shop that formerly filled the space between the restaurants Hue and Shari on downtown's Central Boulevard, is gone for good, though former manager Jim Crescitelli ("the heart of the space," Ball says) is happily on board for the new venture. Since the store's closing last March, the bookshelves have been banished and an upstairs loft with garage-door room dividers has been installed, along with a pocket-sized outlet of Orange Avenue's Virgin Olive Market. (I heartily recommend the hummus and curry chicken salad.)
Another thing Urban ReThink isn't is another Stardust Video & Coffee. "We're not here to compete with other cool stuff," insists Ball. While the tall tables and comfy couches lend the space a coffeehouse feel, the emphasis is not on caffeine and chit-chat but productive "coworking," or as Ball put it "super-cool people making things happen."
Ultimately, Urban ReThink is intended to have what Ball calls a "mullet" operational model: business by day, party by night. During business hours, members will pay a fee (currently ranging from $105 to $295 per month, depending on usage tier) in exchange for a workspace, wireless Internet and access to office equipment like a fax and copier. The setup is designed for self-employed people who are unproductive working from home (too many distractions) or Starbucks (double ditto). Moreover, she says, the founders hope by housing carefully juried resident creatives representing different artistic and technical fields, the cross-disciplinary interaction will incubate young entrepreneurs, creating a place where "people with money [come] to meet people with creative drive."
After hours, the space will be used for a variety of events, like last week's launch party for Jana Waring's independent publishing company, Burrow Press. On Thursday through Saturday nights, Urban ReThink will be available for private rentals to businesses, artists and other groups. Rates will be about $300 per night, and the space will be flexible about bringing in food and booze, making it a viable option for small performances and parties with less than 100 attendees.
On Sunday through Wednesday nights, Urban ReThink will offer free cultural events, which is what I was invited to give my input on. Ball, along with Director of Operations Dina Mack, is assembling a who's-who of Orlando arts supporters to curate the evening programming. So far, they've secured WPRK-FM (91.5) host Jeremy Seghers, who will present a storytelling session on March 7 inspired by the "The Moth Radio Hour"; Pat Greene, one of the minds behind the Creationist Cinema series, who will host film nights beginning March 27; and Frankie "Apartment E" Messina, who will sponsor "Dreamers and Doers" art shows starting this Friday (Feb. 25). Other potential programming participants include Swamburger of CultureMart, the Global Peace Film Festival, Robert Jordan's E.L.L.A. songwriter showcase, and my own Empty Spaces Theater Co. (Like I said, there was a lot of wine.)
Ball asks anyone with ideas for "enriching, thought-provoking, culturally diverse programming" to come help turn Urban ReThink into "the hub of the creative community." Ambitious aims are only as effective as the people executing them, but knowing Ball, I have no doubt about her passion for this project. Urban ReThink's founding director, Darren McDaniel - independent filmmaker, former Vanderbilt sociology doctorate candidate, past programming director of the Downtown Media Arts Center (DMAC) and current Full Sail course director - also seems to have found his niche, having spent years studying how to give the benefits of a structured work environment to freelancers without "caging" them. Lead field ambassador Anna McCambridge is drawing on the "vast network of amazing and inspiring friends" she's developed as an art curator for Visual Fringe and OMA. And I've known Ryan Price as a vocal evangelist for coworking and community networking (along with Drupal programming) since before CoLab Orlando closed.
But the most important supporter is still Craig Ustler, the building's developer at whose expense the project currently operates. He subsidized the substantial cost of renovation (along with outside donations) and is currently paying to keep the lights on while Urban ReThink gets on its feet, so his continued commitment is key. Eventually, Ulster and the Urban ReThink crew need the operation to cover its costs, and a portion of any profit will be directed to the Urban Think Foundation's Page 15, a nonprofit literacy project founded by Executive Director Julia Young. Here's hoping there are enough creatives with some cash to spend in Orlando to prove their gamble right.