Cranes In The Sky.A year ago I blogged about the $5 million dollars that Richmond had available to promote high-tech business growth in our city.

An article in Sunday's Palladium-Item reports that the City of Richmond is proposing to use the funds to purchase 14 acres of land and buildings on the city's northwest side, which they will use to create a space for technology entrepreneurs.

For the record, as someone who created a technology business in Richmond, I'm against this use of the Certified Technology Park funds as it's currently described.

There are a lot of things that technology entrepreneurs in our community could benefit from, but a new physical space is generally not one of them. There are myriad available buildings already suitable for businesses of all kinds - retail, office, manufacturing, etc. With the advent of cloud computing, global distribution systems and other niche service providers, few tech start-ups have specialized space needs.

Not the least of the existing structures is the Uptown Innovation Center, originally designed and built to - you guessed it - house technology entrepreneurs looking for space to get their business up and running. I supported that effort and it's a great space with some great possibilities, but as far as I know, that building has not exactly operated at capacity in its lifetime, and when it has come close it's not been with high-tech businesses.

Friend and colleague Ray Ontko commented in the newspaper article's online discussion section:

The computer-related high-tech community has said that it doesn't need a tech park...perhaps there are other high-tech businesses that would be willing to locate to that space. If so, then this is a good idea. If not, the City will be holding the bag for ownership of that property.

I've been a part of various discussions about how to use these funds. I've talked with a lot of people who work in technology in our region. I've never met anyone who has said, "if we just had a newly renovated space on the northwest side of Richmond, we'd be ready to go!" City officials quoted in the article noted strong existing interest in a new technology center; I hope that interest can be shepherded into concrete financial commitments that justify the expense.

I know the tech park funding has limitations for how it is spent, but if this proposal has come about because there weren't enough other ideas, allow me to offer just a few based on what I see working well in other tech-friendly cities:

  1. Deploy infrastructure to have free, reliable Wi-Fi access in Richmond's high-traffic public spaces (Center City, Depot District, etc)
  2. Host a well-produced technology summit that brings tech workers from around the region to Richmond for conversation, networking, project sprints and more.
  3. Create technology training and education programs for Richmond residents who may not have the time or money to participate in a higher education degree. Help people make better use of the technology tools already in their lives so that they might become consumers or even employees of tech business that locate here.
  4. Support subcultures that tend to overlap heavily with technology worker culture - alternative transportation, theater arts, filmmaking, etc. - and know that when the potential quality of life improves for tech workers who might want to locate here, we stand a better chance of that actually happening.
  5. Create a FreeGeek location in Richmond by supporting existing hardware recycling/repurposing efforts that will help make technology tools more accessible to those who might benefit from them

Those are just some starting points. The CTP's definition of "high technology activity" is pretty broad (e.g. you can use it for "product research and development"), so maybe you can come up with one or two more?

Richmond's typical economic developers know a lot about working with brick and mortar infrastructure development. They like having new groundbreakings, new buildings, new things to take pictures of and showcase as a tangible bang for the buck.

There's nothing wrong with that, but in the world of technology start-ups and entrepreneurship, the physical space is secondary. The building is what you find when your garage is finally overflowing with programmers drinking Jolt in close quarters, or when you have some equipment you need to arrange in a particular new configuration. You don't start there, you end up there, and then you change it and adapt it and then move out into another space.

The primary investment a tech start-up makes is in information, ideas and people.

If as an economic development investment, Richmond wants to support technology entrepreneurs in their quest to develop good ideas and attract and retain good people, unoccupied new office space is quite possibly the last thing we should spend money on. In the absence of a plan to satisfy a clearly defined need for (and financial commitment to) this new space, I hope the City reconsiders this proposal.