Louisville’s “entrepreneur who happens to be a mayor,” as he likes to say, helped author a report on what mayors could do to foster the creation of innovation districts in their cities. Will what he learned help Louisville?
Mayor Greg Fischer is in Miami this weekend at the 85th U.S. Conference of Mayors. He’s a trustee of the conference and is past chair of the conference’s Metro Economies Committee, where he now serves on that committee’s working group on innovation and placemaking task force.
As part of that task force and alongside the Brookings Institution, Fischer had a hand in creating a handbook for mayors called “Advancing a new wave of urban competitiveness: The role of mayors in the rise of innovation districts,” which he recently shared with Insider.
In October 2016, members of the task force visited Pittsburgh, and in April 2017, they visited St. Louis. Both cities have innovation districts but each arrived at them differently, the mayor told Insider during an interview this week.
Pittsburgh’s basically created itself organically around Carnegie-Mellon University and Google, he said.
St. Louis, however, is a different story. “The private sector drove that,” said Grace Simrall, Louisville’s chief of innovation, who joined the mayor.
It was created in an industrial park sandwiched between Washington University and St. Louis University by a master developer with eminent domain and tax increment financing powers granted by the city, she said.
Simrall said that the impetus for the district came from “a homegrown, very successful startup” that threatened to leave the city if better services weren’t made available. The universities helped drive the effort, the private sector stepped up and the city gave the developer TIF money and power to take over land.
Fischer noted that UofL Business School sent emissaries on the trip to St. Louis to study what roles the universities played in fostering the startup scene. He said that the school had added classes to the curricula, which play to the strengths of the Louisville job market like master’s classes in the business school on health care business.
The report covers what a mayor’s role is in facilitating these kinds of innovation districts. It concludes that mayors can be “conveners,” by providing a venue and a platform for the development of a vision; “champions,” by sharing their own visions for a 21st-century economy; and “catalysts,” by providing tools and streamlining old rules to promote innovation placemaking.
Fischer said that because Louisville had centered its economic attention around the city’s industry “clusters,” including food and beverage, logistics, wellness and aging care and advanced manufacturing, it would make sense to foster “intentional density around a cluster.”
The NuLu area has that ball rolling for wellness and aging care. He said that the University of Louisville Foundation’s plans for Nucleus to be a hub of sorts for health-tech companies “didn’t morph that way,” but noted that the primary tenant, Atria, is still part of that cluster.
At one point, according to a 2013 promotional video, Nucleus once had “27 tenant companies, two nonprofits, five accelerators and 20 business entities.” The first floor used to play host to entrepreneurship events including one Startup Weekend and many pitch competitions; now, it has been privatized by Atria.
The J.D. Nichols Campus for Innovation & Entrepreneurship, where the now-named Atria Support Center at The Nucleus sits, was supposed to have additional buildings, but they are on hold due to, in part, the foundation’s troubles, the mayor said.
The city is also working with 1804, the new entrepreneurship center above the Louisville Beer Store in NuLu. It’s called 1804 in recognition of the beginning year of the Lewis and Clark expedition. The effort there is largely backed Blue Sky Foundation and Paul Ogle Foundation and took over Velocity’s 501(c)3 license, according to Business First.
Fischer and Simrall said that if 1804 took off in the small office that once housed Mad*Pow’s Louisville office, then it would move to a larger space at 900 E. Main Street, which was recently bought by E. Main Inspired LLC, according to the Jefferson County PVA. E. Main Inspired is managed by Bryan Ehret, founder of MobileMedTek, a health-tech company.
Simrall said that the Main Street building was “raw” right now and would need a significant build-out.
Two more areas that would make sense as innovation districts — or at least have a jogging start — are Shelby Park and Portland, the mayor and Simrall said. Shelby Park has a rising density of innovative startups moving in. Portland is slowly becoming a food and beverage hub.
But beyond just density, innovation districts need the right infrastructure and networking opportunities, according to the report, and mayors can help facilitate some of those opportunities.
According to the report, innovation districts are fostered when there are also walkable streets, places to eat and meet others, engaging public spaces, streets that are manageable for pedestrians, cars and other modes of transportation.
Districts also need a mix of institutional, company and startup spaces in close proximity with affordable workspaces available. The report suggests that ground floors of buildings be “activated” for cafes, stores, restaurants, bars and other places that invite foot traffic.
In advance of his visit to the conference, Fischer was recognized as one of “5 Good Governing Mayors” by NationSwell, which describes itself as “a digital media company focused on American innovation and renewal.” Author Neil Pamar noted that Fischer was voted “Most Innovative” mayor in a Politico survey last year.
When asked what he anticipated from the conference this weekend besides his presentation on innovation districts, he noted that at six-and-a-half years in office, he’s one of the “senior” mayors now. Topics he was looking forward to discussing included health care, immigration, opioids, gun violence and police-community relations.
He also noted that there’s usually a fairly good showing of people “from The Hill” at the conference but last he checked only two of President Trump’s cabinet members had signed up to attend: Secretary of Labor Alex Acosta and Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin.