WORCESTER — Scribble on the walls, play a game of ping pong, lounge on a sofa.
That’s what the employees of software company ten24 Inc. can do at their new office overlooking Worcester Common while working on projects for clients such as Scientific American magazine.
They’re also doing something else: staking a small, early claim in a downtown neighborhood dubbed the Theater District where their landlord, the Worcester Business Development Corp., and city officials are anxious to see businesses take root.
“Those who want to incubate and start a business here, we want to give them an environment to do that,” said Craig L. Blais, WBDC president and chief executive. “Then we want to help them stay and get launched and steady in the city.”
The hopes of the WBDC are pinned on 20 Franklin St., the former home of the Telegram & Gazette. The WBDC, a development agency, is spending $40 million to turn an outdated and disjointed jumble of buildings at the site into a single modern office center with room for Quinsigamond Community College, commercial office space, a business incubator, café and 300-seat theater.
Some of the work is complete. Ink from long-gone printing presses had been removed from basement pits, and large new windows at ground level look out to Franklin Street and an adjacent alley called Allen Court.
Quinsigamond Community College moved its Healthcare and Workforce Development Center into 73,000 square feet of the 135,000-square-foot building last year.
Ten24, which was founded in 2008 and formerly operated out of 2,000 square feet of rented space in Northboro, relocated to about 7,000 square feet of space on the fourth floor of 20 Franklin St. in December 2014.
Its offices are decorated in gray and orange and evoke comparison to Silicon Valley digs. A ping pong table sits in one area. Nearby, modern sofas form a lounging area. Workers can sit at desks or stand at a bar-height table. Special paint turns some of the walls into giant white boards.
Ten24 moved to the building because it needed more space and access to young software developers, said David J. Crouch, founder and president of ten24. It’s hoping to find workers among the thousands of graduates of area colleges and universities, and access to the incubator the WBDC plans to launch was a draw.
“We have quite a few senior developers at this point, and our goal is to be able to capture some of those more junior developers coming out of the college system in Worcester and keep them here, as opposed to having them go to Boston or somewhere else,” Mr. Crouch said.
The business has about a dozen employees, but plans to grow, Mr. Crouch said.
To complete the transformation at 20 Franklin St., the WBDC wants to open a business incubator in about 9,000 square feet of space on the first and fourth floors, sign a tenant to run a 2,300-square-foot café on the first floor and renovate about 2,300 square feet on the first floor to create an arts space and lobby that will lead to a 300-seat theater. The agency wants to complete all of that in 2015.
The incubator could be the next project completed. The WBDC has already renovated the spaces — a wide-open shared space on the first floor and three suites of small, utilitarian offices on the fourth floor. WBDC officials are seeking an operating company to run the incubator.
Mr. Blais said the goal is to create spaces where the ideas of young people from area colleges can be turned into businesses and eventually graduate to other Worcester locations.
“The piece that the WBDC is most interested in is when they leave, they exit the incubator,” Mr. Blais said. “I want to have prearranged locations for them in the city that I can suggest to them and help them sign their first lease.”
A business incubator is a natural fit for Worcester’s downtown, where more people are starting to make their homes, said Kevin O’Sullivan, president and chief executive of the Massachusetts Biomedical Initiatives, a nonprofit organization that runs life science business incubators in Worcester. “I think they’ve got the right idea, ” Mr. O’Sullivan said. “My sense is there’s a market for that.”
Worcester lacks sufficient incubator space for new business ventures coming out of colleges, said Timothy Loew, executive director of the Massachusetts Digital Games Institute at Becker College in Worcester.
Becker received a grant last year to turn a building on William Street into a new ventures center for its student entrepreneurs, but the college would like to be able to refer students elsewhere when ventures are ready,he said. “We don’t currently have a place in town to hand them off to,” Mr. Loew said. “We don’t have a range of options. The Boston area has dozens of them.”
While the WBDC seeks a professional manager for the incubator, it is also seeking a café operator to serve breakfast, lunch and dinner plus catered events. For now, the space sits undeveloped on the first floor of 20 Franklin St.
Also undeveloped is space for a street-level arts facility and lobby that would lead to a 300-seat theater capable of hosting lectures and meetings during the day and comedy or other performances by night.
Roberta L. Brien, WBDC vice president of projects, said the Worcester Cultural Commission has signed on as a tenant for the arts and lobby space. The WBDC has also applied for a state grant that could go toward construction expenses to complete the space.
“We’re really trying to have multi-player use here,” Ms. Brien said. “We’ve found that was the most successful way to operate … really programming one space for a lot of uses to continue to draw people downtown and to draw revenue from a variety of organizations and uses.”