The college town has become the latest Oregon city to embrace the economic development strategy.
This week local leaders in Eugene are meeting to discuss the concept of building an innovation district, and in late spring or summer the plan will start to come together in a more formal way. The discussions build on several years of conversation about adopting the trendy, but loosely defined, economic development strategy.
Innovation districts have cropped up in entrepreneurial cities across the world, and are becoming a hot economic development trend. Portland recently designated an “innovation quadrant.” The public-private partnership advocates for infrastructure improvements like transit lines, and economic incentives like startup funding, to promote business development in the city’s urban core.
Researchers are still defining innovation districts, but their key ingredients include proximity to a major research university, public gathering spaces, tax incentives to promote business growth and lots of free wi-fi. Innovation districts qualify for federal funding. This financing rewards commercial real estate development and entrepreneurial activity in a designated zone.
However, the concept remains nebulous. Buzzwords like “center of gravity” and “innovation capacity” dominate the conversation. No checklist of features exists to help business leaders envision their ideal district.
“That’s one of the challenges,” says Sabrina Parsons, CEO of Palo Alto Software, one of Eugene’s large employers. “There’s a lot in what it means, but there’s not a lot of prescription in exactly what to do with it.”
A Brookings Institute report identifies three types of innovation districts. In the “anchor plus” model, development clusters around a central institution. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, for example, business growth erupted around the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The “reimagined urban areas model” relies on the transformation of historic waterfronts or industrial areas, such as Seattle’s South Lake Union district.
In the third type, an “urbanized science park,” a mixed-use hub of retail, restaurants and housing, develops in a suburban area.
RAIN Eugene, an organization that assists local startups, has spearheaded much of the innovation district discussion. The group hosted a talk from a Brookings researcher, and blogs about the idea on its website. Interim Director of RAIN Dana Seibert could not be reached for comment.
In Eugene, the University of Oregon could anchor the district’s growth, aided by a wealth of nearby technology startups. The second-largest city in Oregon benefits from easy access through I-5 and a nearby airport.
The advisory board meeting this week will convene representatives from Lane Community College, RAIN, the cities of Eugene and Springfield, and others.
Parsons says that as the district develops, it will be critical to communicate to university graduates that good jobs await them in Eugene, not just the big-name technology cities.
“The biggest hurdle is our biggest asset: location,” Parsons says. “We’re not Silicon Valley and we’re not Seattle.”
That’s just fine, she says. With a well thought-out plan and communications strategy, an innovation district could send a message that Eugene is the place to be.
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