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‘New beacon of downtown’: Bitwise aims for serendipity at its new Bakersfield home

Everyone eats, and there's something about a prominent kitchen that makes people feel at home. But that's not why a food-preparation area is central to the design of the new Bitwise tech hub in downtown Bakersfield.

The real reason, Vice President Amy Thelen said, is to bring people together for serendipitous encounters that might lead to a new idea or a novel approach to a problem — maybe even a unique business venture.

"We want this to be this collaborative space where people will come and accidentally meet each other," she said Wednesday while giving a tour of the building, one of two the company owns near the intersection of 18th and H streets. Work continues on Bitwise's westernmost property but the one closer to the corner is essentially done, and tenants have started moving in.

The concept of promoting accidental meetings carries through the building. It was designed so that tenants run into each other all day long, hopefully leading to unplanned, spur-of-the-moment gatherings.

All three levels of the building feature unassigned desks and tables with inviting chairs and out-of-the-way nooks intended to promote impromptu meetings — not to the exclusion of more formal conference rooms, but clearly with more informal meeting space than is typically found in conventional office spaces.

In that way the building reflects Bitwise's purpose to become a hub of innovation and entrepreneurship. Part coworking space, part software academy, part tech consultancy, the structure will have to create community if it is to succeed.

Visitors walking in through the primary entrance on the ground floor immediately come to a reception desk and two large television screens. That space opens to the bottom kitchen (there's another kitchen on the uppermost floor) as well as a comfortable-looking couch and two large rocking chairs.

Close at hand are multiple coworking stations appropriate for individuals setting up their laptops 24 hours per day, seven days a week. There's also a conference room available by reservation and a "sound booth" where people who have paid a membership fee of as little as $39 monthly can take a Zoom call or have a private phone conversation. Sprinkled throughout the building are 54 coworking stations, not including more formal, dedicated offices.

On the building's southeastern edge is a taproom Thelen said will soon be outfitted with kegs from local breweries. The room has picnic tables and garage-type doors that can be opened to let in fresh air. Just outside awaits a venue space with ample seating, gravel, room for a fire pit and a retractable gate to accommodate visiting food trucks.

The next floor up, a mezzanine, offers additional coworking stations, another sound booth and conference rooms for use by Bitwise's tech apprentices, of which 30 are collaborating online as the company weighs a decision on when to open up to people other than business tenants.

On the upper floor, intended for entrepreneurs and formal tenants but not coworking arrangements, are a large and small conference room, plus a classroom. As with other parts of the building, there's plenty of exposed brick, original metal beams and restored wood floors. The top additionally features a ribbed ceiling.

Several of the formal offices are small — just enough for two or three workers — but others are larger. One of medium size is occupied by Purveyor Branding Co., a local company that carries out messaging and design to help businesses stand out from competitors.

Owner and Creative Director Shannon LaBare said she was aware of Bitwise's original tech hub in downtown Fresno and decided she wanted to be part of its physical expansion into Bakersfield. She called the newly renovated building a "new beacon of downtown" Bakersfield.

She acknowledged the area faces the same kinds of challenges many emerging downtowns have faced in recent years, such as vandalism, theft and homelessness. She said they won't necessarily stand in the way of downtown Bakersfield's continuing evolution into an attractive, exciting place to live, work and play.

"The more people see the beauty downtown, the more people will want to stay here and be a part of it," she said.

Purveyor's senior designer, Kayla Broadhag, praised Bitwise's building as a great place to work. She said she's excited for the collaborations ahead, adding they'll be good for Bakersfield.

"The sky's the limit," she said.

Bitwise's other Bakersfield location, two buildings to the west, is still under wraps as renovation work continues. Thelen said that building will feature larger tenant spaces, a full bar, an arcade and a coffee shop. Both buildings offer about 20,000 square feet of space.