A Downtown Innovation District

Published by: Brian O'Connor | Published on: 12 Jul, 2019
A Downtown Innovation District

This article is a continuation on Innovation Districts and how they might be used to shape the Killeen economy. As previously mentioned, studying the actions of other communities often provides cost-saving models to increase local competitiveness.     

For years, Innovation Districts have been used to attract a confluence of talent from entrepreneurs, academics and tech start-ups. These Districts emphasize collaborative space and innovation to create an environment that unites disruptive ideas to encourage new products. There are countless examples that young well-educated professionals are drawn to these live-work-play hubs for entrepreneurs and knowledge workers.   

With tech companies such as AT&T, Dell, NEC and Texas Instruments headquartered in the state combined with a thriving startup scene in Austin, Texas is becoming an increasingly important center of innovation and technology. 

Between 2010-2014, the Austin metro area population increased by nearly 20,000.   Data shows that migration from outside the state is fueling urbanization in Texas. The state’s metro regions garnered 94% of the total domestic migration during that time, according to statistics compiled by the Texas Demographic Center. An influx of highly educated people has established influential hubs of industry in sectors as diverse as tech, telecommunications, healthcare, higher education and energy. 

Since the purpose of an Innovation District is the commercialization of ideas, it is built upon the intrinsic qualities of proximity, density and authenticity. Density of companies doing similar work in the neighborhood and the propensity of the workforce to socialize in bars and cafes is what author Elizabeth Currid describes as ‘the social life of creativi­ty’; a set of spaces where creative works get done.  

Today, the geography of innovation is occurring in abandoned warehouses, former railyards, old manufacturing districts and other places where people come together, not in isolated spaces. Creative institutions and talent crave proximity to ideas and knowledge. Research has shown that labor moves within a radius of 40 miles, whereas knowledge sharing occurs at a scale of less than 1 mile.         

While Innovation Districts differ markedly in size, location and focus, they all contain economic, physical, and networking assets. These assets, when combined within a supportive, risk-taking culture, form an ecosystem that accelerates ideas and commercialization.   

Unfortunately, since 2000 Killeen’s population of workers in their prime earning years, ages 25-54, has declined almost by 11% as the overall population continues to increase. Prolonged declines among residents in their prime working years will eventually lead to a litany of challenges for the area.

Advantages Bell County may enjoy in attracting employers are quickly negated if it lacks the adequate workforce. Without employers, younger workers will leave to pursue more opportunities in larger metro areas.

So, could an Innovation District be used to increase Killeen’s working age population? Perhaps, but it is apparent that new incentives and focus are necessary to create the vitality that these districts demand. Fortunately, Killeen has the right location, size, population, tech, youth and building inventory to develop its own downtown Innovation District.    
The impacts of a Downtown Innovation District might expand entrepreneurial activities at Texas A&M University-Central Texas or Central Texas College to enhance its reputation as a startup business center or accelerator along with internship and experiential learning opportunities for students and military personnel.    

Killeen’s institutions of higher education, hospitals, junior colleges, tech and trade schools comprise roughly some 18,000 workers that are at the core of the region’s Creative Class.     

A first step might be to create a downtown building inventory. Cataloging properties by size, condition, and physical attributes should be identified. Owners of vacant and underutilized buildings should be approached about their long-term investment strategy and of impediments to development. Grants and low-interest loans could be pooled to manage risk through a local lending consortium comprised of local commercial banks seeking to obtain Community Reinvestment Act credits.  Small efforts now to address further decay of downtown structures will save taxpayers dollars and preserve public health and safety.   
Additionally, the City of Killeen can work with contractors who work in the downtown, guiding them on historic preservation and other code requirements. This will help in determining probable costs to make the buildings habitable and useful again. Providing information to property owners on alternative uses and costs will stimulate market activity. Often individuals purchase or inherit property without a plan or the financial resources to revitalize historic property. Consequently, concentrations of vacant and underutilized property form, which further erodes property value and advances blight.      

The cities of Taylor and Sulphur Springs recently used micro-loans and lease subsidies to recruit entrepreneurs and tech start-ups downtown. These communities identified the marketplace that they wanted and were willing to support. Cafés, bakeries, boutique retail, brewpubs, restaurants and destination entertainment are now plentiful in their downtowns.

The City of Sulphur Springs started their revitalization with City Council authorizing the installation of communal grease traps within the downtown to reactivate multiple properties as restaurants. According to City Manager Marc Maxwell, “It was one of the easiest decisions I ever made, and one I would gladly repeat.” In 2016, the City of Sulphur Springs received the Texas Municipal League Excellence Award for its downtown Celebration District.      

There is little doubt that Killeen has the location, population, industry and building stock to develop an innovative downtown. Business recruitment efforts should balance efforts to organically grow local business through identification of home occupation. Initial efforts could start by contacting home occupation business for relocation downtown or as pop-up retailers to test and reinvigorate the market.          

The City’s historic downtown is comprised of approximately 118 buildings with 29 vacancies (24.5%) with another 23 (20%) that are underutilized. That means that approximately 250,000-300,000 SF of prime retail space is not being utilized to its highest and best use. Downtown’s long narrow lots are ideally suited to boutique retail and nurturing of tech companies that may want a relationship with Fort Hood or Texas A&M University-Central Texas.    

The downtown has ample on-and-off-street parking, lighting, historic architecture, streetscape improvements, walkability, and vacant lots for new construction or business expansion. Declining property values, coupled with a vacancy/underutilization rate nearing 50%, mean redevelopment efforts should start immediately.       

Killeen’s downtown provides an immediate opportunity to begin cultivating a tech niche and entrepreneurial environment that can make way for a University Research Park at Texas A&M University-Central Texas. 

However, the success of any community depends on local leadership, the engagement of broad interests as well as industry partners, and a team that can provide programming to draw people to the district and create an idea-rich environment.

An early event in the development of the Innovation District might be the renovation of a single building that is technology rich. Ideally, the building would include traditional office space, co-working/incubator space and retail space devoted to coffee shops and eateries to draw people and encourage diverse collaborations. Killeen has the technological capabilities,  talent, and environment that the Creative Class want to be a part of. An Innovation District is a first step in securing a reputation where breakthroughs happen.