Innovation and the Downtown

by Michael J. Freilinger
Downtown Development Corporation of Peoria

The assets and resources we already have in place present an opportunity for the entire region.

Readers of this article may wonder what the DDC has to do with innovation. In other words, what does location have to do with innovation? The answer is: a lot.

We are all familiar with Silicon Valley and how it catalyzed a technology revolution that has transformed our entire lives. This revolution was in large part due to the collaboration brought forth through the concentration of entrepreneurs, IT professionals, venture capitalists and visionaries within a single geographic location. The ability to collaborate in such a location afforded them the benefits of a techno-centric culture, where they were submerged in a sea of ideas and possibilities. Information flowed through all channels of daily activity—not only at work, but in personal interactions away from the office.

We still live in a world where people take their kids to school, attend sporting events and dinner parties, and go to the grocery store. In these interactions, we share information and build relationships. These are the beginnings of such collaboration.

What Is an Innovation District?
Innovation districts are geographically defined areas large enough to allow for the colocation of several businesses, but small enough to ensure close proximity. A departure from traditional economic development strategies focused on infrastructure, they provide a synergistic environment for entrepreneurs, researchers, and product and software developers. They are supported by incentive programs, the availability of capital and collaborative environments.

It may not surprise you that the downtowns of cities, once abandoned for the suburbs, are the primary location of today’s new innovation districts. Companies are returning to the downtowns of America for the same reasons downtowns are becoming the new model for innovation districts. In researching this article, I found a report by Bruce Katz and Julie Wagner of the Brookings Institution entitled The Rise of Innovation Districts: A New Geography of Innovation in America (brookings.edu/about/programs/metro/innovation-districts), which I recommend to all our civic and business leaders.

The report identifies the three innovation district models in existence today. The first is the “anchor plus” model, commonly located in the downtown or mid-town of our cities, with established companies engaged in research and development. The second is the “re-imagined urban areas” model, commonly located along waterfronts and in industrial areas like our Warehouse District, which provide historic buildings well suited for the new model of collaboration. The third model is the “urbanized science park,” the previous model of suburban or exurban areas, similar to Silicon Valley.

The report notes a shift from the third model to the first two, largely due to the desire for closer proximity to other businesses, in areas with a mixed-use residential component. This type of environment provides easy access to and from work, high-speed internet access at work and home, walkable neighborhoods, a diverse population and interesting architecture. The fact that people are living and working in proximity of each other is what supercharges the collaboration, even to a greater degree than the Silicon Valley model. It is also where these entrepreneurs and young professionals want to live, so the companies are coming to them.

The tremendous news for Peoria is that our Central Business District and Warehouse District lie adjacent to one another in our downtown. They are on the waterfront, with gigabyte internet service already available. Our regional hospitals are downtown, and Caterpillar is located there. There are several research and development facilities in or near the downtown, and we are developing residential inventory throughout the downtown. The assets and resources we already have in place present an opportunity for the entire region. Peoria, too, can establish an innovation district consistent with the newest models and capitalize on the immediate proximity of both.

How Are Innovation Districts Created?
Innovation districts are a collaborative effort of civic, business and development leaders. First and foremost, local governments—especially the city—need to be involved to ensure that incentive programs, public infrastructure and regulations support the type of development that needs to be established. Nonprofit development entities need to be supportive of the district and collaborate with the city to direct resources and support for entrepreneurs and startup businesses. The business community must participate through the location and expansion of research and development activities within the district. The development community needs to invest in the physical assets to provide space for the business and residential communities. Venture capitalists need to be invested by directing funds into emerging startups. Finally, entrepreneurs and innovators need to be attracted and encouraged to take up residency in the district.

In other words, those entities that can bring the required economic, physical and networking assets must work together with a singular focus on creating a dynamic environment in order for an innovation district to be created.

Why Do Innovation Districts Matter?
As cited in the Brookings report, innovation districts matter because they enable cities and regions to grow, empower entrepreneurs, create jobs, reduce carbon emissions and generate revenue. By focusing our efforts on following the best practices in developing an innovation district downtown, we can achieve a renaissance for the entire region. The benefits will extend well beyond the downtown and the City of Peoria. The wealth created in the innovation district will have a multiplier effect on the regional economy, generating new jobs for residents and tax revenue for local governments.

For these very reasons, the DDC was established to champion the redevelopment of our downtown. Through the revitalization of our downtown, a successful innovation district can be created, our businesses can grow in size and number, jobs can be created for our residents, and a quality of life suitable for our children can be realized. The redevelopment of our downtown is essential to all residents of central Illinois, regardless of where you live; therefore, all of us have a stake in this. Together, we can build upon our current successes to realize the promise of our future. iBi

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