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Fremont Creative Collective forges a model for small town innovation hubs

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Sycamore Education founder Glen Ellis and his son Brock Ellis at the Fremont Creative Collective in downtown Fremont, Nebraska. Photo by Melanie Lucks.

Glen and Brock Ellis want the Fremont Creative Collective (FCC) to become a startup incubator, code school, entrepreneurial and technology hub and arts venue.

The 30,000 square foot May Brothers building in downtown Fremont, Nebraska, is full of local history. 130 years old today, the building has served as many things including a grocery store, a jobbers manufacturing warehouse, as well as and Sen. Ben Sasse’s campaign headquarters.

In 2014 Glen Ellis, founder of Sycamore Education, wrote a letter to the previous owner describing his idea for FCC and was originally turned down. A few months later the owner reconsidered and sold Ellis the building.

For the last year and a half, Ellis and his son, Brock, have been renovating the space and dreaming up what the Fremont Creative Collective could become for the community of Fremont, a small city of around 26,000, 30 miles west of Omaha.

Connecting with Gallup

Along the way, Ellis has connected with Gallup’s Strengthsfinder and EP10 researchers, one of whom is now also on the FCC board.

“We started finding out that strengths are extremely important,” said Ellis. “It’s really what the Creative Collective is all about.”

Ellis explained that using strengths can really help entrepreneurs find where they are lacking; and where they need to hire outside help. Ellis’ own strengths are Restorative, Developer, Futuristic, Idealization and Belief, which obviously ended up meshing really well with his current project. However, on his EP10 test, Business Focus is near the bottom.

“That tells you why it took so long for my company [Sycamore Education] to grow,” said Ellis.

Ellis said that in hindsight he probably would have hired a few other business partners while starting out. He said that it’s very important for the future of Fremont for people to know their strengths and own them.

“We want to become the Match.com for entrepreneurs,” said Ellis. “So people can come in and form groups based on what they’re missing.”

Ellis said that by stepping back from some of the duties at Sycamore Education, he has been able to watch it grow more efficiently and now has more time to focus on what the future of the FCC will look like.

“We want entrepreneurs to be the core of everything,” said Ellis. “When we get entrepreneurs we get startups, and when we get startups we get jobs. And when we get jobs, we really start impacting the Fremont community.”

Floor by floor

Ellis said that they want the first floor of the building to be community driven.

“This is where we want the collisions to take place,” said Ellis. “We are going to encourage squatters. We want them to come in and set up shop for the day.”

Ellis explained that there will be a coffee shop and code school on the first floor of the building. He hopes that this layout will help build connections between entrepreneurs and future programmers.

Ellis explained that once those potential connections have taken place, he wants them to escalate to the second floor of the building, where there will be coworking space and what he calls an “entrepreneur ally.”

“There will be eight to 10 small offices that we are going to give away for free to anyone starting up, because I know personally how much it takes to get something going,” said Ellis.

According to Ellis, the second floor will also include a few offices for entrepreneurial-friendly lawyers, accountants and marketers that are interested in helping out startups.

“We want to have it so that these entrepreneurs will have everything they need to get started on or pivot their business ideas,” said Ellis.

Ellis added that the third floor of the building will be reserved for the future space of Sycamore Education, Ellis’ first startup.

“We want to have Sycamore on the third floor so that we can help entrepreneurs with coding and sales,” said Ellis. “We’ve got a great company hovering over them that’s actually proven and doing business.”

“You’re doing something weird here.”

This seems to be a lot of Fremont’s general reaction to the business plan for the Fremont Creative Collective.

“I think all the individual pieces that we have haven’t been assembled in this manner before,” said Brock Ellis.

Ellis explained that a general lack of resources has been a driving force for the plans behind FCC.

“I saw this PDF map of entrepreneurial resources across the Midwest, and there wasn’t a single dot on Fremont,” said Ellis. “That’s when we decided we weren’t going to Lincoln or Omaha. They need a resource here.”

Ellis explained that right now they’re an oddity in Fremont. Fremont is traditionally an agricultural town so no one really knew how to handle the idea. However, Ellis believes that entities like FCC will help Fremont hold onto all the talent that seems to disappear after students graduate from the local college.

“A lot of people have said, ‘Glen, you’re doing this for personal reasons to help Sycamore [Education],’” said Ellis. “I’m doing this because it’s going to help Fremont. Eventually, I want to create so many coders that I can’t hire them all.”

Events at FCC

So far the FCC has hosted a variety of community events, including public speakers from Gallup, hack nights, community led nontraditional educational nights and workshops hosted by Sycamore Education.

“Eventually, our goal is to have an entrepreneurial event like Big Omaha in the spring and a technology event in the fall,” said Ellis.

Ellis added that the collective will also host regular events throughout the year like weekly coding meetups.

“People can bring their side projects they’re working on, have mentorship opportunities and show off what they’ve built,” said Brock Ellis.

Brock also added that there is another side to the project which includes a public venue.

“We’ve already had a musical group perform here, The Well Pennies, and we’ve also had the artisan market here every first Saturday of the month,” said Brock. “We’re still learning, but I think it’s turning out really well.”

The team also hopes to continue to build the relationship they have with Midland University by hosting senior recitals for art and music majors.

A model for the region

Ellis added that what they’re trying to do in Fremont needs to be replicated in every small town in Nebraska. Brock credits FCC’s board of directors for helping the team form their processes.

“I don’t mean to brag, but I would put our board of directors against any board in the state of Nebraska,” said Brock. “We have an former director of a chamber of commerce, a former administrator for a public school system, a certified strengths coach, etc.”

After a year and a half of working together, the team continues to evolve.

“We have all of these people that specialize in each niche, and they’ve all bought into our vision. We’ve assembled this Avengers team of nonprofit professionals.”
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Ellis said that the biggest win for the collective so far has been the community interest.

“One night we had members of the community come in and tag the floor with their names,” said Ellis. “The community loves this. They’re already asking when they can rent out space. The building just cannot be finished fast enough.”

The team expects the first floor to be done in late fall / early winter of this year.


Mel Lucks is a regional freelance journalist and former intern for Silicon Prairie News and AIM.

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