Innovation Village - a plan to revitalize West Baltimore - Launches on MLK Day

From the Baltimore Business Journal

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Innovation Village — a plan to revitalize West Baltimore — launches on MLK Day

Jan 18, 2016, 12:01am EST Updated: Jan 18, 2016, 6:46pm EST


Innovation Village Chairman Richard May says there is very little startup activity in the area currently.

An ambitious effort to spark employment and redevelopment in Central West Baltimore is set for a public launch Monday.

The effort, called the Innovation Village, labels itself as Baltimore's first innovation district and spans some of the areas hardest hit in April's unrest. It covers a stretch of West Baltimore from Coppin State University to the Maryland Institute College of Art and from Mondawmin Mall to Martin Luther King Boulevard.

Innovation districts are relatively new urban developments being tracked by the Brookings Institution. Brookings defines them as compact, transit-accessible geographic clusters of anchor institutions and companies packed with connections between anchors, startups and business accelerators. They can be seen in cities ranging from Barcelona to Boston.

They do not have to be backed by governments. But a large roster of elected officials are slated to be on hand for the Innovation Village launch in Baltimore, including U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, State Sen. Catherine Pugh and representatives from Gov. Larry Hogan's office.

The idea behind the new innovation district is to build an economic framework that aligns anchors like Coppin State, the Maryland Institute College of Art, neighborhood associations and other cultural attractions, said Richard May, Innovation Village chairman and co-founder. The district will include other groups as well, like the Center for Urban Families, in an effort to build an area attractive to startups and companies, he said.

Baltimore's Innovation Village grew out of work to found the Mount Royal Community Development Corp., May said. Neighbors kept hearing about the desperate need for jobs in West Baltimore and started looking up economic growth in other cities. They eventually found the idea of an innovation district.

There is very little startup activity in the innovation district currently, May said.

"You'll notice from the startup map, the current ecosystem and activity is heavily weighted to one part of the city," May said. "One could argue from this map that West Baltimore in particular is a startup desert. That has economic implications for the entire city."

May thinks the Innovation Village is already starting to change things. He can already talk about two companies locating there: Brioxy and Dovecote Cafe. Brioxy is a social capital network for millennials of color founded in California that's moving its headquarters to Baltimore. Dovecote Cafe is already open in Reservoir Hill.

Meanwhile, Baltimore business networking community Startup Soiree is planning to hold at least two events within the Innovation Village area. Incubator and accelerator spaces are preparing to open in the district as well, May said.

The fact that May mentions a cafe as a success for the Innovation Village brings up an important point — innovation districts aren't just about high-tech jobs. High-tech jobs are a big part of the zones, but they can also mean other types of jobs created with economic activity — jobs like office managers, secretaries, even janitors.

Backers have wrapped up the first phase of planning for the Innovation Village, which included conceptual renderings and community organizing. It was funded by community donations, May said.

Work has been done cataloging vacant properties and abandoned parcels, particularly those that could have strategic value for a company or organization. The basic idea is that it's easier to bring in private development if you have an existing roster of available locations.

"Our model is really focused on finding the operators that will commit to leasable space," May said. "Our model is based off of identifying strategic industries and clusters that build off of the strengths of the university assets and cultural assets."

Whatever industry clusters emerge in the Innovation Village, they'll likely be driven by the creative economy, May said. He suggested visual production as a possibility.

One thing the Innovation Village isn't expected to announce Monday is funding or an official status under state or city regulations. But May said the long list of officials attending the launch shows that the innovation district is getting political attention. It can capitalize on grant opportunities or other programs, like the extensive $700 million blight elimination program Hogan recently announced for Baltimore.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake believes the city can help the district, said her spokesman, Howard Libit.

"The mayor looks forward to working with them on different grants that they may be able to take advantage of," Libit said. "There is staff time, there is planning time that we can provide to help."

Innovation Village organizers will have to be careful not to duplicate the efforts of nearby focus areas like the Station North Arts and Entertainment District, said Jennifer Vey, a fellow and co-director of Brookings' Bass Initiative on Innovation and Placemaking. But Baltimore is a large enough city that it can support different industry hubs in different places, she said.

Innovation districts can take many forms, Vey said. Sometimes they spring up in places with many assets, while other times the term is coopted by developers with little more than a building they're trying to market at higher rents.

Since the definition of an innovation district is flexible, it could be hard to predict the future of the Baltimore effort.

"You see efforts like this in other places," said Vey, who lives in Baltimore. "Part of it for any effort like this to be successful is to figure out what they are trying to create that's maybe different and fills a niche based on the assets that are already there."

Innovation districts can take many forms as players packed into close proximity run in different directions with new ideas, said Julie Wagner, a nonresident senior fellow with Brookings who is also co-director of Brookings' Bass Initiative.

"That is really what makes this space so fascinating," Wagner said. "There's not just one size."

For the Innovation Village, the next step is a more intensive planning session led by a 90-day steering committee. Those participating in the committee include Betamore Co-Founder and Chairman Greg Cangialosi, BITHGROUP Technologies CEO Robert Wallace and Antson Capital Partners Managing Partner Anthony Rodgers, May said.

The steering committee will address questions of design, marketing, real estate development, governance, access to capital, pursuing talent and partnerships between universities, industries and the community.

Rick Seltzer


Baltimore Business Journal