Feature: Insider’s Guide to the Innovation District

Erie is such an exciting place to be! We’re all engaged at various levels in a pivotal time in our history. Community-wide discussions, detailed plans and budding programs are occurring right now, all in the interest of moving Erie forward… away from the label of a “rust-belt” community and toward a more thriving and “rust-free” culture. We are an idea hub aimed at building a new knowledge-based economy to create, maintain, and grow industries and family sustaining jobs.One of the most potentially transformational initiatives is the coming launch of the Downtown Erie Innovation District. Enabled by a $4 million grant from the Susan Hirt Hagen Fund for Transformational Philanthropy, the Erie Community Foundation, and the Erie County Gaming Revenue Authority, this initiative is designed to stimulate job creation and economic development with a focus on the fields of safety and security. The formation of the Innovation District is being led by Mercyhurst University in collaboration with Erie Insurance, McManis & Monsalve Associates, UPMC Hamot, and Velocity Network (VNET).

Innovation districts are  a growing trend in urban planning with more than 80 established districts worldwide. Each innovation district tends to have a specific focus area that helps a city move away from industrial production to more modern and tech-based production. Nearby innovation districts in Buffalo and Milwaukee focus on medical & water innovations. Erie’s  district will focus on safety and security, particularly the high-demand fields of data science and cybersecurity. The leadership team consists of Dr. David Dausey, Provost & VP for Academic Affairs at Mercyhurst University; Tim NeCastro, CEO of Erie Insurance; Joel Deuterman, CEO of Velocity Network; Marco Monsalve, Chairman of McManis & Monsalve Associates, and Carrie Ennis, Director, Strategic Planning and Corporate Initiatives with UPMC Hamot.

We  recently had the privilege of speaking with Dr. David Dausey at Mercyhurst University about the current status of their efforts. Our goal of this conversation is to inform the entrepreneurial community about the great work that is being done with the plan in support of Erie’s bright future.

Here’s the scoop:

  1. Progress Update – Phase I

“The project is in its sixth month.We began by creating a legal structure for the Innovation District.We created a single-entity LLC with a small board.We established a search team and hired a national search firm to identify candidates for President and CEO.We contacted the Brookings Institution to help us understand the structure of innovation districts throughout the country.We worked closely with the Erie Downtown Development Corporation (EDDC) and Empower Erie to ensure that our efforts were complementary to theirs.We held bi-weekly meetings with a wide range of stakeholders to update them on our progress and obtain feedback.”

  1. Is the site selection complete?

“No.  We are working with many stakeholders, including elected leaders, community leaders, business leaders and others to establish the best location for the Innovation District.  We may move forward with a temporary location for the district until we can finalize the choice for the final location.  We will be continuing these discussions this summer.”

  1. Has a CEO been named?

“No.  Four months ago, we hired a national search firm, DHR International,  to help us identify the President and CEO.  DHR has successfully identified leaders for other innovation districts and has the expertise we need for the search.  The search committee consists of the leadership of the Innovation District including our founding partners.  The search to date has been confidential to protect the anonymity of the candidates.  We will be announcing the final two candidates within the next few weeks.  We will be inviting these candidates to come to Erie in late July to meet with community stakeholders and give presentations.”

  1. What are the actual boundaries – City of Erie, or just downtown?

“We are currently focused on the downtown area.”

  1. What is being done to involve downtown/city businesses?

“We are currently working with a number of key city businesses including UPMC Hamot, Erie Insurance, Velocity Network and McManis & Monsalve Associates.  As the Innovation District gains traction, increases its bandwidth, and becomes established, more businesses will be engaged.”

  1. Is the Downtown Partnership involved?

“Not yet, but we look forward to working with them.  Our initial efforts have been focused on establishing the legal entity for the Innovation District and studying models for innovation districts in other areas.  We value the Downtown Partnership and are excited about opportunities for future collaboration.  Once selected, the President and CEO of the Innovation District will reach out to the Downtown Partnership and other key stakeholders.”

  1. One of the most important concepts in community and economic development is empowerment; “nothing for me, without me.” How will the Innovation District leaders engage individuals in downtown Erie’s innovation economy in the planning process, such as the Innovation Collaborative, incubators, accelerators, coworking spaces, and technology companies?

“We recognize the importance of collaboration with key stakeholders in Erie who are working in this space.  We are in a nascent phase at this stage, but look forward to and welcome the opportunity for collaboration with these and other groups.  We have already invited leaders of the Innovation Collaborative to our bi-weekly planning meetings and welcome the addition of other partners to these meetings as we work to get the structure for the Innovation District established.”

  1. In what ways does the Innovation District complement Erie Refocused and the Downtown Master Plan?

“The Innovation District was created with a focus to augment and support existing plans for Downtown Erie.  A key component of all plans for Erie is the recognition that we can’t do everything all at once.  Thus, we need to focus block-by-block and building-by-building.  We don’t have unlimited funds for getting the Innovation District off the ground.  Thus, we are focused on limiting our scope to achieve short term gains and then to build from there.“

  1. Will the Innovation District emphasize the attraction of technology firms or the cultivation of homegrown technology firms?

“Both. And it isn’t just focused on technology firms.  The Innovation District is focused on businesses engaged in safety and security.  This includes technology firms but isn’t exclusive to technology firms.  There are three aspects of growth associated with the district: (1) working with firms currently in Erie to help them to develop new products and new lines of business; (2) working to start new companies, and (3) working to attract new businesses to Erie.”

  1. We don’t see the public sector mentioned until the second phase. Seems odd that the city and county leaders wouldn’t be involved from the outset?

“We are involving city and county leaders from the start.  We have met with the County Executive’s office and with city & county planning staff.  We have also met individually with every person running to be Mayor of Erie to tell them of our progress and to gain their buy-in for our efforts.  The final current candidates (Democrat and Republican) have met us and have endorsed the Innovation District.”

  1. How will the yet-to-be-developed Bayfront properties fit into the Innovation District and how will the EDDC investment group be engaged?

“The Innovation District leadership is working closely with the Erie Downtown Development Corporation (EDDC) to try to align all of the initiatives and investments being made in the downtown area to ensure that we can exploit synergies where they exist.  Thus, as the Bayfront is developed, we will be coordinating our efforts to ensure that they are complementary.”

  1. How will the value of existing assets like the arts and culture sector be taken into consideration?

“One of the great advantages of innovation districts is that they can be one component of an overall effort to revitalize downtown areas.  The arts and culture sector is a critical and important partner in that effort.   We are working closely with the Erie Downtown Development Corporation (EDDC) to aid in revitalization plans for downtown.  Being directly involved with revitalizing the arts and culture sector is outside of the scope of the Innovation District, but we look forward to the opportunity to support those efforts in any way that we can.  We welcome opportunities for discussion with the arts and culture community to ensure that our plans for the District are synergistic with the plans for downtown redevelopment and to build on and improve our already impressive arts and culture sector in downtown.”

  1. How does the proposed community college fit with the Innovation District concept?

“The Innovation District is complementary to the idea of a community college. There are jobs and opportunities that will be developed as part of the Innovation District that a community college could help support through training.  We have been working closely with the team establishing the community college and have discussed a wide range of collaborative opportunities including locating the Innovation District and community college in close proximity.”

  1. When the organization gets 501c3 status in Phase II, does that mean it will not pay property taxes?

“We recognize the challenges that Erie is facing in re-establishing its tax base in the city.  Rather than create a new 501(c)3, we decided to create a single entity LLC for the Innovation District. The goal of the Innovation District is to bring family-sustaining jobs to Erie.  Thus, we will be attracting tax-paying businesses to come to Erie, to expand the existing operations of tax-paying organizations and to creating new tax-paying organizations.  In the end, the organizations that participate in the Innovation District will be tax-paying entities that can help the city rebuild its tax base.”

  1. What happens to the partnership after Phase III is completed?

“The goal is to make the Innovation District self-sustaining.  Beyond Phase III, the companies and partners involved will help to sustain the management structure for the Innovation District.  This is consistent with innovation districts around the country that have become self-sustaining.

Thank you for the opportunity to respond to your stakeholders.  We look forward to the ability to collaborate with all of you and are grateful for your efforts to make Erie a better place!”

The Innovation Collaborative is very grateful to Dr. Dausey & the team for providing this conversation and subsequent updates for all of the entrepreneurial community.

A BIG THANK YOU!

We will stay tuned and stand ready to serve in whatever capacities are appropriate to ensure the success of this coming community asset.

And to the reader, please consider, and perhaps document, what you can do, when the time is right, to assist with the Innovation District’s implementation and long-term success!

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