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Economy and Business

Cleveland hopes to attract young talent with floating office space on the city's lakeshore
A software firm is taking over the barge that was once Hornblower's Restaurant

Kevin Niedermier
The old Hornblower's Restaurant barge on Cleveland's lakefront will soon be home to software and marketing companies.
Courtesy of Kevin Niedermier
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This summer, when boaters are fishing, water skiing or just relaxing off Cleveland’s downtown lakeshore, one nearby boat will be a workplace filled with software designers. Software company LeanDog and a partner are renovating an old barge docked on the Lake Erie shore. As WKSU’s Kevin Niedermier reports, in a few weeks, what was most recently a floating restaurant, will be the Midwest’s first floating office. And there’s hope that the project will attract more office boats to Cleveland’s lakefront.

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For now, LeanDog’s 55 employees work out of offices in Burke Lakefront Airport’s terminal. C.E.O. Jon Stahl, in shorts, tee-shirt and flip-flops, describes his growing 3 year old company’s philosophy.


Stahl:   “We call it “The Hanger,” and we have an open style of working. Our values are courage, communication, feedback and respect, so there are no offices or cubicles.  We have umbrellas up there to shade the sun glare off the computer screens and a sailboat table. A lot of innovative, fun space, so we try to motivate people to be completely transparent and open.”


There’s also a rock climbing wall and a ping-pong table. So, working on the old boat  docked next-door, beside the World War II submarine the U.S.S. Cod, isn’t too much of a stretch for Stahl and his staff. In fact, LeadDog boarded the boat a few years ago and used the vacant Hornblowers restaurant’s tables and bar as office space.


Stahl:  “In December, 2008 LeanDog moved in and there was a for sale sign and called the owner and said I’m a start-up, do you mind if I turn the lights and chase the rats away, maybe someone will buy it if it looks occupied. We were there 3 years and met up with Arras Keathly and we formed a partnership with Jim Hickey to create another company and buy the boat. It took a long time, but finally happened. Our total investment in the purchase and renovation is around $600,000, and about of third of that is the purchase.”


        This boat has been around


Besides great views of the city and the lake, that $600,000 investment also buys a lot of maritime history.


Stahl:  “This was a steamship built in 1892 called the Kearsage by the Innerlake Steamship Company of Cleveland. It served in Chicago, and after the war they cut the 175 foot ship in half, took the top off and used it as 2 barges. The some restaurateurs bought the boat and turned it into a restaurant. It served as a restaurant for 20-years, sat vacant for 3 years while we were tenants, now we’re renovating. It’s a great story for Cleveland because it’s 120 years old, 20 years older than the Titanic.”  


Last December, workers starting gutting the ship’s restaurant interior to make room for LeanDog and marketing firm Arras-Keathley. And across a short gangplank, the transformation continues.


Stahl:  “Lets go in, it’ll probably be loud inside, want me to turn the radio off, it’s loud. Sorry guys. So this is where our kitchen will be. Each company will have an up, down and a back and front part of the boat. We’ve put windows in all around. We finally done cutting holes in the boat and we’re starting to patch them up, that’s progress. So we’re starting drywall next week and we hope to be in here in about 6 weeks.

Niedermier:  “how much more expensive is the upkeep on a boat compared to a land based building?”

Stahl:  “Since it’s a boat it’s personal property, we lease the water from the state, the dock from the city. Because it was built in 1892, the hull is thicker than normal, so we had to pay for testing to see how long it’ll float. We have to put lots of bilge pumps in. It weighs 7000 tons. We have oxidation things hanging in the water to prevent electrical current discharge. We didn’t maintain it the first 3 years we were on it because we renting, so now we’re going to find out. The wind and weather really take a toll on it. So this is the kitchen and when we walk out here there’s a door leading to the docks where guests and pull up. That’s one of the most exciting features because we can now get to the water.”

Niedermier:  “Will anyone get any work done with all the distractions?”

Stahl:  “One thing about a place like this is you work harder because you don’t want to lose it. Once you experience it you don’t want to leave, and it’s inspirational. Everyone come over here from the airport at the end of the day just to relax.”


   Developers hope more office boats will follow


For further relaxation, much of the old restaurant’s maritime themed bar will be recreated on a yet to be built third level. The boat to office project is part of Cleveland’s ambitious $2 billion lakefront development plan to attract retail, entertainment, residential and business space.  Stahl’s partner, Arras Keathely president Jim Hickey, hopes their office-boat project will spark similar floating workspaces and other developments on the shoreline.


Hickey:  “We think for the first time the city’s waterfront plan is actually doable. They’re trying to swallow the elephant one bite at a time and not eat it whole this time. And for the first time all the key stakeholders are aligned. So we’re hopeful that we’re the first, but not the last significant development on the waterfront.“


Developers believe unique workspace like converted boats is a great way to help attract young talent to a city. Other cities with floating office space are Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Vancouver, British Columbia, London and Helsinki, Finland.                                                                                                                          
Listener Comments:

My husband works at LeanDog. The entire atmosphere is such a welcome change from the usual workspace. It really is a model that more companies should use. Working on the water is a unique opportunity. I hope this helps Cleveland's redevelopment of the waterfront!

Posted by: Tricia (Jackson Twp) on May 24, 2012 8:05AM
We only needed 300 to buy and 300 to upgrade.

Posted by: Wayne on May 24, 2012 1:05AM
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