By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA
“It’s a stake in the ground,” he says of the area, explaining that it represents the center core of the city’s rapidly emerging entrepreneurial ecosystem. But, the Innovation District is also a state of mind, a concept for ensuring the continued growth of the city and greater economic prosperity for its residents.
“We initially thought it (the designated district boundaries) would be the Southside area, but it became clear to us later that the center core was where it really was,” Hays explains. In fact, the strategy involves what he calls “place making . . . density.”
One might also describe it as building a critical mass of talent with many of the complementary assets that millennials and others expect in places to work, and socialize – coffee shops, restaurants, and music venues, all in walking distance.
Since the Innovation District was announced in January 2015, there have been a number of “validations,” as Hays likes to describe the things that provide substantiation for the progress being made.
One of the most visible is the Edney Innovation Center, a 90,000 square foot building formerly owned by TVA, but sold to a private developer.
“One year from the purchase date, not the start of renovations, 40,000 square feet are leased,” Hays says. Occupants include CO. LAB, Society of Work, and Hays’ organization. A recent open house attracted almost 600 people to visit and enjoy the four floors now contributing to the city’s innovation economy.
New companies are moving into or expanding in the designated area. They include:
- OpenTable, the national restaurant reservation company that has moved into the original location of the first Krystal Restaurant, an irony not lost on Hays;
- VaynerMedia, a New York City-based advertising firm with offices in Los Angeles and San Francisco and now Chattanooga with plans to grow to 75 employees locally within three years;
- Bellhops, a Chattanooga-based start-up that has raised nearly $20 million in venture capital since its founding four years ago and has what Hays describes as “105 wickedly smart young people living, working and playing downtown”; and
- Coyote Logistics, acquired by United Parcel Service last year and now adding 160 jobs in the “Chattanooga Innovation District.”
There are other validations such as:
- Vibrant start-ups coming out of CO.LAB like Feetz, 3D Ops, and Branch Technology;
- Programs like Morehead-Cain Scholars at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill that is sending students to Chattanooga for two months to work on metrics;
- $500 million of new construction in downtown, much of it for housing; and
- A recently released case study by the Kauffman Foundation, the nation’s leading entrepreneurship-supporting foundation, highlighting Chattanooga’s success in growing its entrepreneur ecosystem and the Innovation District.
Yet, perhaps the biggest validation for Hays is something he never dreamed would happen when his daughter graduated from high school in 2004 and headed-off to college in New York and later studied and worked in places like the Netherlands, Mumbai, and Shanghai.
“I thought she would never return,” he said, but she did two years ago to live and work in her hometown. “Imagine working in a world with your daughter.”
Hays clearly attributes it to the evolution of Chattanooga and its innovation initiative.