Innovation District keeps eye on millennials, and diversity, moving forward

Innovation District keeps eye on millennials, and diversity, moving forward

June 3rd, 2016 by Zack Peterson in FYI - 2015

Kelli Munczenski, left, and Matthew Killebrew, of Sawdust + Sod, stand at their booth prior to the Company Lab's Pitch Night in the Edney Building Wednesday. Taylor Davidson, also with the company, is not pictured.

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

Staff Photo by Dan Henry / The Chattanooga Times Free Press- 10/9/15. CoLab's new space on the first floor of the Edney Building off of E.11th Street in downtown Chattanooga on Friday, October 9, 2015.

Staff Photo by Dan Henry / The Chattanooga...

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

Near the front door of the historic Edney Building downtown is a plaque that reads, "Connecting thinkers, starters and doers."

On the side wall, two billboards with colorful mantras and poetic musings about innovation proudly face the hundreds of drivers who commute up and down Market Street.

"Who says your way is the best?" Reads one line.

"Now I have had an awakening," claims another.

Since the Enterprise Center inked an agreement to buy the Edney Building from the Tennessee Valley Authority for $1.3 million in November, these are but a few of the additions to the 1950s powerhouse.

On any given day, you can see designers, coders and young entrepreneurs roaming in and out of the ground floor, bumping into each other and experiencing what many believe to be the future of the business and start-up culture in Chattanooga: "intentional creative collisions."

As Chattanooga continues the march forward into developing its 140-acre innovation district, these collisions will be essential, said Ken Hays, president of the Enterprise Center, the nonprofit tasked with spearheading this movement.

But they're also a critical to fostering more tech-minded innovation among millennials, that digitally savvy generation most likely to have come of age during the early 2000s.

"Innovation districts are an emerging tool that communities are using," Hays said. "Research shows that [millenials] want to be in dense, urban, highly caffeinated areas with a strong sense of place."

Chattanooga, Hays said, "has literally been building that place for 30 years, and making that downtown a place where people want to live, work, and play."

Indeed.

A place where entrepreneurs, tech-based startups, and business incubators can mesh and create that so-called innovation ecosystem has been an aim of the city since 2014, when Mayor Andy Berke's office began floating the idea of shaping the Edney Building into that hub.

Part of that 140-acre district, the Edney Building is located in the heart of the center city and about a quarter-mile walking radius from M.L. King Boulevard and Georgia Avenue and includes public spaces such as Miller Park and Miller Plaza.

The area includes venture-capital players like the Lamp Post Group, Society of Work, EPB, and the Public Library. When a leading urban scholar from the Brookings Institute visited Chattanooga in September 2015, he marveled at the city's quick development.

The Edney Building itself houses about 20 groups, said Tia Capps, a spokeswoman for Company Lab, a state-backed accelerator program that has been key in encouraging said collisions.

But Capps said the key to attracting millennials and continuing to develop multi-dimensionally is ensuring diversity remains part of the innovation district's conversations.

"If you think about attracting millennials, young people moving from the suburbs to urban cores, it's not only access to resources, but it's also looking for diversity," she said.

Already, several such programs exist that hope to combat the problem.

Enterprise Center heads programs such Tech Goes Home, which strives to teach people in underserved communities the benefits of digital literacy. After participants go through 15 hours of training, they have the option of purchasing a $50 Chromebook.

In an effort to further those intentions, Co.Lab created a liaison position in late 2015 for Alexis Willis, a LAUNCH employee who teaches nine-week business development courses in neighborhoods such as Alton Park and in Brainerd, Capps said.

"Part of working with both organizations is to make sure everyone is communicating with one another," Willis said.

Usually, the only thing separating people with talent is opportunity, Willis said. "And part of that is making sure everyone's at the table."

"I would love for a young whippersnapper in my place to continue my work and walk into an ecosystem that's more diverse than when I started," Willis said. "Diversity is the heartbeat, and I don't think the district will work without it."