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April 18, 2016 | Tom Ballard

PART 1: Ken Hays discusses first year plus of Chattanooga’s Innovation District

Enterprise Center(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first article in a two-part series examining the first year and few months in the evolution of the “Chattanooga Innovation District.”)

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

It’s been a little over 15 months since the Mayors of Chattanooga and Hamilton County designated 140 acres in the city’s downtown as the Chattanooga Innovation District.

Since then, a great deal of what Ken Hays calls “validations” have occurred. They range from very tangible actions like the purchase and repurposing of an old building into the newly designated Edney Innovation Center in the heart of the Innovation District to less visible but very significant collaborations across all sectors of the community.

“I’ve had a front row seat at one of the most amazing things to ever happen in Chattanooga, and I’ve been involved in a number of them,” Hays says. Those who have followed his career understand the implications of that statement.

We sat down recently with the engaging, energetic and always animated President and Chief Executive Officer of The Enterprise Center (TEC) to get an update on all that has happened and things still to come. Hays’ organization is tasked with leading the initiative.

“If you don’t focus on innovation, you are going to be left behind,” Hays says with a reference to the work of Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution, arguably the national thought leader on metropolitan revitalization and innovation.

Hays has a strong development background intermixed with governmental service. He was Chief of Staff to Chattanooga Mayor Jon Kinsey, President of Chattanooga’s River City Company for five years, and a partner in Kinsey Probasco Hays when he was tapped in May 2014 to lead a revamped Enterprise Center.

Over the previous year, a diverse group of local leaders, educators and entrepreneurs developed a set of recommendations for Mayor Berke’s “Chattanooga Forward Gig, Entrepreneurship and Technology Task Force” that called for a local entity to wake up and work every day to advance the potential of Chattanooga’s digital assets for all Chattanoogans. The plan included three key strategies: creating a downtown Innovation District, an applications and research agenda, and promoting digital equity.

Less than a year later, the Chattanooga Innovation District was announced, and Hays and his team were off to the races with an important early validation.

“A community is strongest when its political and private interests are aligned,” he emphasized, noting that TEC is a public-private partnership entrusted to lead the development of the Innovation District.

During our discussion, Hays reflected on early conversations and thinking about just what the concept means in a community like Chattanooga.

“Innovation districts are usually formed around universities,” he explained, citing cities like Austin (University of Texas) and Boston (Harvard, MIT and others). “Because innovation and technology are so pervasive, however, they do not just come out of a university.”

Hays notes that Chattanooga is a mid-size metropolitan area without a major research university, but with university assets. As such, its approach to developing an innovation district is different.

“Ours is driven by entrepreneurship rather than research even as UTC is building its research capacities,” he explains. “We also have two huge advantages.”

They are the EPB-deployed gigabit network that is the largest of any city in the U.S. with 170,000 citizens connected and a provider (EPB) that is what he calls “user friendly. You need them to be connected to you. This is not plug and play.”

That does not mean that Hays is not working to leverage the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (UTC) or even the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) less than 100 miles away. He is, in fact, doing so on a regular basis.

“We’re working to bring UTC into it in a big way and also link with ORNL,” he says.

NEXT: A listing of some of those early validations for the “Chattanooga Innovation District.”

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