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Building on the Past 

With dynamic new leadership, Coeur d'Alene is starting to make the dream of a high-tech economy come to life

After lying empty for some 25 years, the elegant-turned-seedy Elks Building in downtown Coeur d'Alene is being reborn as a den for aspiring young entrepreneurs. The transformation is led by energetic human change agent Nick Smoot, who manages to juggle several balls in the air with apparent ease.

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Workers are hauling off the guts of the aging building by the truckload. Their efforts will transform the red brick shell of the old Elks Temple into a work-and-play headquarters for the Innovation Collective, which has been percolating along, literally underground, since 2014.

Its website reads: "Innovation Collective is an organization that exists to inspire, connect, and accelerate local entrepreneurs in the Coeur d'Alene region, and help them to build the companies of the 21st century right here in our backyard."

Smoot, masterminding this effort, is a graduate of Coeur d'Alene High School who went east to Philadelphia and New York City about eight years ago to find his future. In these two cities, Smoot was absorbed into and mentored by the high-tech community. He began developing software programs, then made a successful sale and married Kenna. Together, they came back to put down roots in North Idaho. This is his success story, which he and his team want to help members of the Innovation Collective replicate without having to leave the Inland Northwest.

Recently, I was briefly whisked down the proverbial rabbit hole into a seemingly magical world of nerds and supernerds, who speak a different language, know how to code software and are working toward adding a high-tech boost to the local economy.

The Innovation Collective employs some very savvy marketing tools in its organizational kit, recruiting members and providing services that will help them think big, because "Life is too short to think small." The first targets for membership are ambitious business novices who are willing to take risks.

The collective sponsors Fireside Chats, a question-and-answer session with individuals successful in their field. Twice a month they hold a 7:30 am leadership session sharing tips and experiences. And a bi-monthly networking coffee is on the calendar. Their website boasts that Innovation Collective "hosts awesome parties with really nerdy people."

And once a year they sponsor the Think Big Festival, bringing in notables from companies around the globe loaded with stories of success and failure.

Local business visionaries, such as Steve Meyer of Parkwood Business Properties, have said the Coeur d'Alene area is a likely site for expansion into high-tech innovation and production. The University of Idaho, a sponsor of the Innovation Collective, has recently enhanced its Coeur d'Alene campus with a new major in computer science — another advance under the leadership of Dr. Charles Buck.

The appeal of the Innovation Collective goes out to the young in spirit as well as the young in age, and it sends a strong message that a young family does not have to move away from their roots in order to make a living. To keep your roots about you — to take risks and to ride with change — is a giddy promise, indeed.

The Innovation Collective is clever in spirit and in words. It's always smart to encourage teamwork, and it's just as smart to encourage individual creativity. But it's truly sweet when the two paths meet as one.

Now, Innovation Collective leaders have taken on the massive task of renovating the old Elks Temple, which once served as a sanctuary for men working in downtown Coeur d'Alene. Years ago, the bar at the Elks was the last stop of the day of the city's downtown bankers, lawyers and businessmen. It's a nice touch to build a new quasi-guild on a sturdy remnant of a former lodge — recognizing the human need for a sense of belonging to a fraternity, a union or just a den.

The plan is to preserve the brick walls of the old building and to open a coffee shop on the first floor for everyone in town. The mezzanine will be divided into large multi-staff suites, and a large area will be devoted to small, single-person offices. A portion of the building will be dedicated to member activities.

The target date for the renovation to be completed is March of 2017, making it more than a century since 1912, when the first section of the Elks Temple was dedicated. For now, a giant chain-link-fence cage is wrapped around the shell of the old building — allowing old Elk memories to be put to bed while a new, large and friendly space for den members and community events is created. ♦

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