The innovation zone

Published: Sunday, January 15, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 14, 2006 at 11:14 p.m.
One of the benefits of riding my bike to work is that I tend to notice things that used to zip past my car windows at driving speed.
Lately I've been noticing what's been going on, or rather what's not been going on, at the intersection of SW 16th Avenue and 13th Street.
Well, another fast-food restaurant just went out of business on the northwest corner. But across the street, the same fast-food restaurant that's been there as long as I can remember is still going strong.
There's still a bar and a dry cleaning operation on the SE corner. And the gas station that's always been right across the street is, well, still pumping gas.
In the evolution of a city, this is a fairly static intersection. It hasn't changed much since I first hit town, in the early 1970s.
But so what? The same can be said about any number of Gainesville intersections east of 34th Street.
If market forces drive the destiny of any location, one might conclude that the market demand simply isn't there to justify anyone doing anything different at 16th and 13th than what's been done for three decades or more.
Except for one thing. That intersection is only a few blocks away from Shands at UF, already one of the most highly concentrated employment centers in Florida and still expanding.
Shands is not only the regional hub for health care, but the place where thousands of scientists and researchers are searching for cancer cures, looking to make genetic breakthroughs and trying to unlock the mysteries of the human brain and central nervous system.
We've all been waiting for that "spin-off" miracle to start spinning off; that point at which UF's multi-billion dollar research and development enterprise begins to spawn new businesses and economic activity in the community. And logically, the intersection of 16th and 13th ought to be a prime candidate for spin-off related redevelopment.
One might imagine high-tech private research labs springing up there, along with mixed used commercial and high-end residential development to serve the influx of researchers, business people and professionals who would work there.
Or if not at 16th and 13th, then perhaps the spin-offs would mushroom eastward, along Depot Avenue, or take root around Shands at AGH, or spread down Main Street south of the city's future stormwater park.
In fact, city officials have mapped out an east Gainesville "innovation zone" that stretches from UF's campus proper to UF's new eastside campus, on Waldo Road. It is an arc that incorporates the city's GTEC incubation center, the airport, SFCC's 6th Street campus, the downtown business-entertainment district and the P.K. Younge lab school - all of them community assets able to provide job training, education, entrepreneurial support and quality of life amenities to help nurture and support spin-off city.
So what's the hold up? Does somebody at UF have to win a Nobel Prize before the world sits up and takes notice?
Not necessarily, although it wouldn't hurt.
For the past year or more, city and UF officials have been studying closely the economic renaissance that transformed New Haven, Conn., from a crumbling rust belt city to a booming center for biomed industry. More than 30 new businesses, $450 million in venture capital, and $2 billion in equity investment has been concentrated in a once seedy section of New Haven.
The magnet is Yale's medical center, which is roughly comparable in size, scope and complexity to UF's Shands.
But perhaps the most important thing to know about the New Haven-Yale resurgence is that it is a relatively new phenomenon. As recently as a decade ago, New Haven was in decline and Yale was worried about its ability to attract talented faculty and top flight students to a city where, frankly, few people would care to live.
The "miracle" only began to unfold after key town and gown players came to the realization that they needed each other - that Yale could not continue to be a great university without having a great university city around it.
The other day, Gainesville's new city manager, Russ Blackburn, dropped in for an introductory visit with UF President Bernie Machen. Also present was Warren Nielsen, the city commissioner who has done more than anyone to get UF and Gainesville to pay attention to the Yale-New Haven partnership.
In a follow-up letter, Blackburn told Machen: "Your vision of the University of Florida being ranked nationally among the top ten public universities will require a partnership between the University and the City to ensure that high paying jobs for spouses and residents, and the outstanding quality of life and community aesthetics of a great university city, exist in Gainesville."
True enough. And the good news is that the town gown partnership has been steadily evolving.
Gainesville is in a position to greatly facilitate spin-off development in its innovation zone. It can make infrastructure improvements, assemble land, rewrite development regulations, change zoning and target community development and tax increment funding.
For its part, UF's Office of Technology and Licensing is increasingly having success patenting and marketing university inventions and research.
What's missing, for the most part, is significant private sector commitment by venture capitalists and development investors.
Machen has been asked to incorporate Gainesville's innovation zone as an "overlay" into UF's own long-range campus master plan - an act that might have as much symbolic significance as anything else.
"We're not asking UF to open its treasury and pour in millions of its own dollars," said Nielsen. "What we're asking for is UF's name, its reputation, its blessing."
Blackburn also asked Machen to add a new, and key, staff position to its Office of Technology and Licensing: To wit, a "seasoned property developer."
"An individual with personal contacts and experiences with companies that provide technology and bio-science economic opportunities could encourage private investors to construct facilities and programs to support the University's goals and objectives," Blackburn said in his letter to Machen.
When Jon Sonderstrom, director of Yale's Office of Cooperative Research, came to Gainesville for two days of briefings last year, he made an important point: The developers and investors who helped make the city a "hot real estate market" didn't so much beat a path to New Haven's door as respond to Yale's urgings to come to town.
What opened the investment floodgate was the $50 million renovation of a long abandoned telephone company building into an office and lab complex. And that capital came to town largely because Yale used its extensive contacts in the business world to convince developers and investors that the risk was worth taking - that biotech was poised to take off in New Haven.
Yale didn't spend its own money. It convinced others to come in and invest.
My sense is that UF and Gainesville may be a decade behind Yale-New Haven in terms of spurring the sort of significant private investment that could spark dramatic changes at the intersection of 16th and 13th or elsewhere in the innovation zone.
The town-gown partnership seems as healthy as it's ever been. Convincing developers and investors to take that first giant leap of faith figures to be the major challenge for 2006 and beyond.
Such risk takers are surely to be found within UF's own extensive, nationwide network of alums, supporters and business partners.
Ron Cunningham is The Sun's editorial page editor. Write him at

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