"*Article originally published in CityBizList"

Our Urban Doppelganger. There’s a lot of buzz around innovation districts, much of it fed by the Brookings Institution’s extensive research on the movement. The Economic Alliance of Greater Baltimore, whose board I’m on, is hosting a symposium this spring on the relevancy of innovation districts for Baltimore. When one looks around the country, there are interesting parallels between Baltimore and St. Louis – suburban flight, a depleted urban core, profound police / race issues, loss of corporate headquarters, daunting job statistics – you get the similarities.

Setting the Stage for a Big Bet. Fifteen years ago, the St. Louis business community, with the support of the state and regional governments and academic institutions decided to do something about their plight. They focused on 200 acres located between the downtown and the Wash U campus six miles out. The area was literally a no-man’s land of vacant warehouses, needle infested lots, an amenity desert, bereft of any promise. They formed a non-profit and spent years and lots of political capital ensuring that it had the tax, condemnation, transportation and other infrastructure framework in its control to be impactful, creating in many ways a city within a city. They did this long before a single backhoe went to work. Thus was born the Cortex Innovation Community. While the project is still growing, it has over 1,000,000 square feet of space in use, filled with 4,000 jobs and counting, and over $500,000,000 in investment. While growing from a small historic base of tech jobs, St. Louis is now the fastest growing city for startups – and importantly not just tech – and after their racial turmoil,Cortex has redoubled their effort to attract diverse businesses, support organizations and new opportunities.

Thinking Big / Being Bold. What worries me the most about Baltimore’s conversation on innovation districts is whether we really understand how profound the foundational efforts need to be in order to pull off a district as impactful as Cortex in St. Louis. Last year, I had a chance to tour Cortex and meet with their leadership through an Economic Alliance mission. Here are my reflections from that trip and how they should inform our conversation for Baltimore:

  • Take the long view – building an innovation district that will have profound impact takes decades, efforts at early wins distract and probably dilute long term success; manage expectations that there will be early successes
  • Create a development entity with real power – Missouri and St. Louis created massive tax and tax credit incentives (focused on the district as a whole and not piecemeal by building or company); they gave the development entity condemnation authority; they reworked transportation infrastructure to ensure it wasn’t an oasis… They basically saved themselves from the reductive behaviors that politics can play when each piece of the puzzle has to be approved
  • Listen to the community – Cortex didn’t decide on a particular industry sector or company (or even stage of growth); it focused on ensuring that the development incentives allowed the market to make those decisions – essentially letting the market compete for the highest and best use of the district; they designed a process that minimized the corrosive effect that mediocre but well intentioned organizations can have on real momentum
  • Be in the business of developing an innovation environment not in the business of running programs or meeting needs – embrace other organizations who train, incubate, educate, and offer programs, networking, etc., let the market constantly improve what’s going on by competing through delivering real value

Declaring Something an Innovation District Doesn’t Make it So. Ironically my biggest fear isn’t that Baltimore can’t rise to the level of thinking as profoundly as St. Louis, though that does worry me. My biggest fear is that we will water down any chance for a truly impactful innovation district by trying to meet all needs in all areas of our city– declaring everything an innovation district while having none. Granted, an innovation district on the scale of Cortex in St. Louis, would be a daunting effort for Baltimore. Worse though would be to fall profoundly short by either not investing the political and financial capital to truly make a difference, or to placate and patronize all needs. Interestingly one of the greatest concerns we heard in St. Louis about Cortex was that it would destroy other efforts at building innovation communities such as in their downtown.The converse has played out; Cortex has had a positive impact on the broader region with development increasingly occurring outside the district. We actually saw that most of those other facilities have upped their game over the years and are full. The rising tide created by Cortex not only has lifted many boats throughout St. Louis but has made them better at navigating an increasingly competitive world. Is Baltimore up to doing the same?

With more than 30years’ experience in law and business, Newt Fowler, a partner in Womble Carlyle’s business practice advises many investors, entrepreneurs and technology companies, guiding them through all aspects of business planning, financing transactions, technology commercialization and M&A. He chairs the Board of TEDCO and serves on the Board of the Economic Alliance of Greater Baltimore.