By Steven Froias / Contributing Writer
NEW BEDFORD, MA – The cornerstone of the building at 1213 Purchase street reads “1898.” It began life in the halcyon days of rapid industrialization as the New Bedford Textile Institute. Over the next century, it would be adapted for other uses. Today, it is the City of New Bedford’s Quest Center and it is managed by the New Bedford Economic Development Center (NBEDC).
Within its walls you’ll find the city’s first coworking facility, Groundwork. It is owned and operated today by Sarah Athanas. She, and her initial founding partner, Dena Haden looked at the raw space and envisioned something new and useful for the city.
They found willing partners in the NBEDC and City Hall. The NBEDC realized it had found an anchor tenant for the Quest Center and helped the visionaries secure financing for Groundwork from MassDevelopment. The City offered practical support, such as the build-out of the space through the Department of Public Infrastructure.
Well over a century since its dedication, the Quest Center and Groundwork are at the heart of a new technological age. It embraces a collaborative entrepreneurial ecosystem inside and out. Though the building was purpose-built, innovators and community leaders joined together at the address without preconceived notions and thus changed the paradigm at 1213 Purchase Street.
Groundwork as the center of gravity
In just over six years, the empty space that Sarah Athanas first saw and imagined as Groundwork has grown from a single office suite to a multi-level center of business. Laptops replaced long-gone looms; individuals and small businesses weave a new kind of magic.
Groundwork began life in a cozy “beta space” on the building’s second floor. Even as it began attracting the members who would come to define it, a large part of the first floor was being renovated to serve as the company’s future home. That space had once been a community theater. But Sarah Athanas and her cohort of supporters envisioned it as something entirely different for the city – and brought it to life.
Soon, it would begin to spill beyond the borders of its new home, into the hallways and adjacent areas as Groundwork relentlessly grew. In the process of this growth, Sarah Athanas has held true to her vision for a coworking facility at 1213 Purchase Street.
Today, she and the company are setting their sights even higher – literally. Over its six+ years, Groundwork has become a shared vision. Today, members want small private offices in addition to a main floor shared workspace and access to networking opportunities like New Bedford SourceLink.
So, when Sarah saw an unused landscape of space on the building’s second floor, she summoned up her perspicacity once again and doubled down, or rather up, on Groundwork. It will now combine the best of coworking with a suite of private offices, further repurposing this historic but adaptable building.
Coming to a street corner near you…
Sarah looked upon a building over a hundred years old through the eyes of a 30-something and decided to define it anew. Now, that talent is being employed by others throughout the area surrounding 1213 Purchase Street – and there’s no reason to doubt it shouldn’t come to a street corner near you.
Up and down this street, signs of transformation are blossoming around the Quest Center – a mirror image of what’s been happening inside the building. It’s a mix of private and public investment that’s producing a dynamic all its own.
Very soon, it will find itself at the terminus of South Coast Rail. The commuter rail line that will link the City of Boston and the region together will lay right across from it off Route 18. Just steps from its door, a pedestrian overpass will join the two enterprises together.
Preparations for this fortunate union are being made even now. Purchase Street today is in the first throes of a streetscape upgrade which will prepare it for its new role as the transportation gateway into New Bedford. People are looking at this space – and seeing it in a new way for a renewed purpose.
Along with a new rail station, MassDOT is in the process of a radical redesign of Route 18 north of Elm Street to Coggeshall Street. Following a successful effort south of that point, it will further integrate this stretch of roadway into the city once again. Just in the nick of time; plans are in the works for a major new offshore wind training facility within view from the windows of the Quest Center.
When she began Groundwork, Sarah Athanas had little reason to think this area just outside of New Bedford’s downtown would spin on its own complete axis one day. That it has is due to her ability to see a place at face value through fresh eyes. Others who share her gift, of not being burdened by preconceived notions, have paid attention. It’s why Groundwork has flourished and continues to grow, and also been a catalyst for growth.
Six years from now, much of Purchase Street here will be completely transformed, for the better. What began with pure imagination will be the new reality.
That’s a movable template and terrific model to follow. What we see around us now in New Bedford represents not only our shared past, but our collective future.
All you have to do is look at it from the proper perspective.

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