Code, Coffins and Community: In Downtown Eugene Mark Davis is Making More Than Software.

It’s a sunny October evening and Mark Davis is pushing a coffin down Willamette Street in downtown Eugene, Oregon.  Davis is well over six feet tall, skinny limbed and barrel chested. His bushy red beard has a streak of white down the middle and he’s wearing a straw hat and a windbreaker with flames on it.  

He would stand out without the coffin.  By day, Davis is a “developer evangelist” for CBT Nuggets.  Basically, it’s his job to get people excited about programming.  He’s also the founder of Codechops, a coworking space where freelance developers can rent a desk in a collaborative work environment.

His coffin is built from rough pine in the classic hexagonal shape.  It has a welded steel undercarriage, small rubber tires and rudimentary systems for steering and braking.  It was made by Ding Ding Cycles for the City of Eugene’s inaugural Halloween Coffin Race.

After much trading out of drivers and pushers Davis and a group of volunteers from local tech firms reach their destination, the Codechops office on the second floor of the Broadway Commerce Center.  

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Today, the Broadway Commerce Center, with its distinctive arched windows, is the heart of Eugene’s downtown. In 2008 the building was derelict and Davis had just moved from Portland to Eugene.  Davis quickly realized that Eugene already had a large population of freelancers working in tech, but lacked the community that had existed around the industry in Portland.

At a 2011 planning meeting for the downtown area Davis saw an opportunity to bring Eugene’s tech workers together in the nascent Commerce Center.  By the end of the meeting he had identified a half dozen developers willing to be initial investors and Codechops was founded.

Since then, Codechops has expanded twice.  Other similar spaces have opened and hundreds of tech companies have been incorporated.   According to the Oregon Employment Department, Lane County now contains around 450 tech companies employing just over 4,000 people and bringing about $330 million in total payroll, three percent of the county’s total.

This tech boom was one of the major drivers in the revitalization of downtown Eugene.  Now tech workers mingle with a diverse array of people in the dense cluster of trendy bars, coffee shops, restaurants and boutiques that has emerged around the Broadway Commerce Center.

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Davis parks the coffin on the sidewalk outside The Barnlight –a bar and coffee shop located directly below Codechops– and sits down to admire his trophy.  A rotating crowd of programmers, IT specialists and business owners cycles past Davis’ table to remark on the coffin. Davis goes inside to grab a beer and Dave Garcia, one of the volunteers, stays to watch the coffin.

Garcia, co-founder of KinergyTech, a local IT company with what he characterizes as “a focus on family and community,” doesn’t see this growth slowing any time soon.  He’s not alone in this assessment. Employment Department projections suggest about 2,000 jobs could be added to the sector by 2028 making it the largest driver of growth in the region.  

He’s worried about the impact this growth could have on Eugene.  “Coming from the bay area I don’t want to see the same traffic and smog and the overloaded infrastructure. I think we’re in a good spot right now where there’s a relationship between the community and the industry and I don’t want that to go away.”

That relationship to the community matters to Davis.  Projects like the coffin are a way to stay engaged with Eugene residents who don’t get excited by programming languages and the differences between squiggly brackets and parentheses.

Davis brims with excitement for projects like King Pong  –a larger than life arcade console/art installation running the classic video game Pong– and the racing coffin.  Projects that combine technical know-how with artistry. But he admits that collaboration between industry and community can be challenging.  “People coming from other backgrounds aren’t familiar with collaboration technology like Slack and the switchboard so coordinating can be hard.”

The Eugene Tech Switchboard, another of Davis’ creations, is a website where people can ask for or offer advice, job opportunities, code or whatever else they might need.

Getting tech workers to engage with their city hasn’t been easy either.  At a recent planning meeting for an upcoming open source development conference, all but one of the participants elected to remote in despite all living in the area.

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The light is starting to fade and it’s time for Davis and Garcia to move the coffin inside.  The two maneuver the coffin into The Barnlight. It takes several minutes to negotiate the tight turns around tables and barstools but eventually they get the coffin through to the bar’s back door and into the building’s central atrium.  They leave it parked there and take the stairs up to the Codechops space.

The Codechops main space is a small, L-shaped office that looks out onto Kesey Square through two of the building’s iconic arched windows.  Along the window leg of the L there is a coffee table ringed on three sides by lumpy, broken in couches. Two smartphones with tripods and microphones are set up transforming the space into a simple studio.

Davis, Garcia and a few other guests are here to reboot the Tech Tuesday live show.  Davis began doing these Facebook Live broadcasts of weekly meetups shortly after Codechops opened.   

For two years the show was hosted by Joshua Evans, a software developer at Trifoia, a local company that makes digital learning software.  “Mark would sometimes grab random people to do the live show,” Evans explained. “One week he asked me if I wanted to do it and I said yes and then the next week I asked if I could do it again and he just asked if I wanted to run the show.”

This is fairly characteristic of Davis’ leadership style.  “That’s what Mark does, he gets the ball rolling and then he hands it off to someone who wants to do it.”   Adam Wendt, president and CEO of Trifoia said, “But, he does a good job of making sure it’s in good hands, which is something a lot of people don’t do.”

This time around Garcia is hosting a sit down talk show with a specific focus on Eugene; its past, its present and also the future.  Davis is one of the the guests. While he talks about the upcoming coffin race the other guests float around the office, drinking from the office’s refrigerated keg of local IPA and admiring the art that covers the walls, almost all by local artists.

After the show ends the conversation turns towards the growing homeless population in Eugene’s downtown.  Business owners fear that aggressive panhandlers scare off customers and negatively impact the area.

Davis, always one for a creative solution gestures to a row of Slim Jim boxes set up behind the couch. “We’re trying to get them to sponsor us.”  He jokes. Then he produces a few of the individually packaged meat sticks from his pocket and explains. “We just carry around a few of them so when panhandlers ask for a cigarette, or some change or something you can just offer them a Slim Jim instead.”