Two weeks ago roughly 40 community leaders from Santa Cruz visited the communities of Seattle, WA and Victoria, BC (in Canada) to learn about new strategies and approaches to a wide range of issues. The issues of principle focus for this trip were economic development and housing, with a majority of the stops being focused on growing new businesses and development policy.
The trip also provided a great opportunity for Santa Cruzans of all walks of life to meet with each other and better understand how our own community works. Beyond the packed itinerary, the trip’s roster boasted 5 of the 7 Santa Cruz City Council Members, the top staff members of the both the City and County Economic Development offices, multiple representatives from both UCSC and Cabrillo, various government staff members, and industry representatives from the hospitality, health, finance, real estate, and legal professions. Taken together, this group has tremendous influence over the development of new policies and practices within Santa Cruz, and we had no shortage of things to learn about.
Seattle – A Case Study in Transit Oriented Development, University/Private Partnerships
The first stop on the Community Leadership Visit was a brand new 7 story development project located near the University of Washington campus. The project was a partnership between the University and the Children’s Hospital in the area to provide priority housing for their staff. Both of the institutions had identified one of their primary needs to be workforce housing, as many professors and doctors were commuting into the area. The property is managed by a private management company and was developed through a 3rd party partner with some private financing. However, both the hospital and university get first notice when a unit becomes available, and staff are given 5 days to exercise their preferred option to live there.
In terms of design, the 7 story, 160 unit project was built within the appropriate zoning for the area and within walking distance of an under construction light rail station. Because of the proximity to both the hospital and university, as well as other public transit options, parking requirements are minimal. The units are smaller and rather dense, but blend in a mix of unit types (1, 2, 3 bedroom units) with a number of built in common areas. For instance, the rooftop has a shared dog park and lookout area, and each floor has a common larger living room space with kitchen facilities and tabletops that give off a sort of “cafe” vibe for people looking to work in a common area. These common spaces can also be reserved in advance for larger parties and such.
University of Washington – Tech Transfer and Incubation
The University of Washington has a built in incubator for new companies and staff department in charge of managing and protecting any intellectual property developed through these projects. The center, called “CoMotion”, has dedicated resources for would be entrepreneurs, researchers looking to protect their IP, and interested investors. They also have an “entrepreneur in residence” (EIR) program that provides free office space for students, and a social enterprise internship program that facilitates innovation in predetermined areas of community importance in and around the university (examples include housing, transportation, and homelessness). The incubator as a whole is relatively new, having launched just 16 “successful” (commercially viable) companies, but has continued to grow it mentorship network each year.
VIATEC – All About the HUB
VIATEC stands for Victoria Advanced Technology Council, and it serves as the organization in charge of facilitating the HUB experience, that is being anything and everything related to technology in Victoria, which by no coincidence is the City’s largest and fastest growing industry. This includes managing the largest rolodex of tech contacts in the city, hosting events, workshops and parties (the latter being of extreme importance for both networking and quality of life), and managing a jobs and internships board. They also advocate on behalf of the tech industry as a whole, including working with their members to get engaged in the local community. When meeting with the leaders of VIATEC they stressed 3 important factors: Building the network (this includes attracting, retaining, and management), having a space (public presence, essential for events), and working with the University (a major source for new hires for there companies).
When talking about the importance of building a large network VIATEC talked very specifically about the importance of creating a welcoming place for young people. The quality of life in Victoria is one of the major reasons so many people choose to live there, so they advertise it. Whether it’s the amazing cycling and recreational opportunities, to the good local beer, to just the weather, they hit upon all aspects of why someone should choose to stay in Victoria instead of say moving to Silicon Valley or San Francisco. The strategy has been so successful in fact that many of their companies choose to open two offices, one to close to clients and funding in the Bay Area, and one in Victoria. Managing the needs of this talent pool is done through constant interfacing. They consistently hold events to facilitate larger discussions about how they can improve their work and the general climate of the area, while also flexing the network to help each other.
Another one of the key aspects to VIATEC’s success as been the purchasing of their public facing space, which they affectionately refer to as Fort Tectoria. They initially bought the space because it was cheaper than renting, buying one floor at a time and turning it over to member companies for lease. However, they quickly realized how much they benefited from having a public space and a place to hold events. Now the entire bottom floor is open and free to use by members of the public, complete with a cafe and free wifi, which has resulted in numerous unanticipated encounters and partnerships. They also use the space to hold open house styles events, informational workshops, and of course, parties (see the above mentioned paragraph), all of which help build and further solidify relationships between mentors, investors, and entrepreneurs alike.
The last importance piece of the VIATEC model is their connection with the University of Victoria, also known as UVic. What UVic is well known for is their Computer Science department, which provides students with the opportunity to work in teams in local tech companies at Victoria. In almost every panel we heard from someone mentioned having either hired a UVic student or being one themselves. Many of the panelists even expressed a preference for the younger, less experienced employees coming right out of college because of their ability to learn new things quickly and their lack of intimidation for attempting higher difficulty tasks. Said another way, one panelist described their willingness to tackle more difficult tasks as such: “they don’t know what’s not possible yet, so in their mind it’s all possible”. This constantly flowing and direct pipeline of up and coming talent cannot be ignored when analyzing the success of VIATEC.