This is a monthly series in which the Attorney General will feature a Vermonter doing exemplary work in their community. Have someone you think should be featured? Email AGO.CAP@vermont.gov.
Driven by her “love for community in every sense of the word,” our March Vermonter of the Month, Monique Priestley, founded The Space On Main in 2017 as a nonprofit community-based coworking, maker, conference, event, and gallery space in the heart of rural Bradford, Vermont.
Monique grew up on a back road in Piermont, New Hampshire, just over the river from Bradford. From a young age, her parents fostered a love of the arts, learning, hard work, and volunteerism. Monique says that as far back as she can remember, her mom always volunteered in the community and brought her and her sister along to help. In her view, the community was always there to help them in return. Because of this, Monique believes there is strength, energy, and hope in community.
As a teen, Monique moved across the Connecticut River to Bradford. She went on to graduate from Northern Vermont University – Lyndon and then the University of Washington’s Master of Communication in Digital Media program. After completing graduate school in Seattle, Monique returned to Bradford and bought a house. Since then she has served on numerous boards, committees, and commissions, and was recently recognized as the Cohase Chamber of Commerce’s Citizen of the Year.
Today, Monique continues to demonstrate her dedication to community by founding The Space as a way of fostering entrepreneurship, collaboration, creativity, and innovation in the Vermont/New Hampshire Cohase Region. We recently had the pleasure of touring The Space and learning more about the work Monique is doing and what drives her passion for community:
How did you come to understand the need in your community for a space like this? What made you start this program in a rural place like Bradford, Vermont?
I am involved in quite a few local community groups and nonprofits. Before working on The Space On Main (also referred to as The Space), there weren’t many meetings that happened without someone asking, “How do we engage the young professionals here?” I was always the youngest person in any room (often by a few decades) so this question was often directed at me. At the same time, several of Bradford’s most beloved businesses had closed or moved and there was palpable desperation in the air. I started wondering whether I should move back to Seattle (I went to grad school at University of Washington and work remotely for a company there).
At one particularly hard meeting, a mentor and friend of mine asked me to share an idea I had only told a handful of people. I wanted to create a space where people could gather to work, create, teach, and learn side-by-side. I knew there were people who wanted to engage with the community but did not really need or know how to. I wanted to bring them together.
That meeting turned into an instant buzz of ideas. I went home, sent out an online survey to gauge community interest, and got 85 responses that weekend. That was a lot for rural Vermont. I started meeting with those people one-on-one in their homes, in coffee shops, in their studios, at their offices – figuring out exact needs, desires, prices, challenges, vibe, etc.
What is something that has been a welcome discovery? What is something that has been a challenge?
I am inspired every single day by the people who reach out to find out more about The Space, but more importantly, they reach out to find out how they can become an active member of their communities. They just need someone to listen to their story, to their ideas, and to help talk through the questions that are holding them back. It energizes me, it helps awaken something in them, and it makes me appreciate humanity.
In terms of challenges, the whole process has been one big series of challenges. I did not know the first thing about most of the tasks I needed to complete. Luckily, I have always been a lover of problem-solving, unquenchably curious, resourceful, and stubborn.
What has been the community response?
Honestly, mixed. There are people who understood what The Space was from the beginning and have been amazing – and who really made the entire thing possible by providing guidance, funding, and support. There are people who come in, sit down, and talk through what The Space can mean for them. There are the people who do not understand The Space – or really even the spark that happens when people from diverse backgrounds interact with each other. Then there are the people who just have not heard of it yet. The first few keep me going. The latter few present opportunities to practice marketing and storytelling skills.
You’ve said that about 2,300 people have been to The Space on Main since it opened. Are you drawing just from Bradford or surrounding areas? How do you get the word out?
We are definitely drawing from Bradford and the surrounding areas. We have regular members and attendees from up to 45 minutes away on both sides of the Connecticut River. We have had quite a few people stop in that are visiting family or friends. We have requests from people who want to be members while their kids attend local summer camps. We have had a few people become members for a few days at a time while they scope out housing in the Upper Valley. And our Event Space and Conference Room are being booked all the time by local nonprofits and businesses that need a place to hold meetings, classes, and retreats.
We have mostly focused on social media, Vital Communities listservs, and Google. Features on television networks, in Seven Days, and in local papers have really helped. Word of mouth is the biggest driver. We plan to put more of a focus on print advertising.
What are some lessons you’ve learned about starting a small business? Do you have any advice for other Vermonters starting this?
Have patience, appreciation for timing, and listen to everyone and everything. There have been so many moments when I just could not get through to resources that I was advised to pursue. That was frustrating at first, but then I realized that opportunities to connect were presented to me later, in drastically better circumstances. At this point, it happens so much that it is entertaining to see how someone, or something will end up circling back around.
I think my advice would be to be open to any and all ideas and connections. I say yes, to a lot of things that seem pretty random – a person I should talk to, an idea someone wants to brainstorm, an event someone wants to go to, an article I need to read, but I never walk away from anything without having learned something from it. Those lessons increase my awareness for later discoveries and connections.
You are located right on Main Street in downtown Bradford. Are you working on bringing any other new businesses like yours to the downtown? Any long-term goals for The Space?
The cool thing about The Space and being personally engaged is that people reach out all the time with business or community ideas they need help with. As I connect with various people and organizations, it broadens the resources I can help point others towards.
Along with growing membership and rentals to sustain the nonprofit, our goal right now is to develop and fund programming that can provide support and opportunities to remote workers, entrepreneurs, small businesses, and community members. We are also working on funding for equipment that will expand the types of programming that can be offered. We have ideas for using the third floor of the building and have been asked about potential satellites, both of which are longer term goals.
For right now, we are pretty excited for the number of people we have been able to serve in the first five months and cannot wait to see how The Space adapts and evolves over the coming year.