In Pursuit of an Innovation District

Kevin Hively, one of the authors of a redevelopment plan for the area impacted by the natural-gas explosion in 2012 — and the streets surrounding the so-called ‘blast zone’ — hit the nail on the head while explaining why this plan is ambitious and why it will be quite challenging to convert into reality.

“We want to create an innovation district with a lot of energy and momentum taking place,” he told those assembled at a press conference earlier this month staged near where the blast took place. “But the fact of the matter is, innovation districts are driven by talent, and talent is driven by job opportunities and quality of life.”

Right now, Springfield can’t say it offers either one. And that’s why there’s not much talent here around which to create an innovation district.

But there is promise for both, and that is the city’s ongoing mission — to convert that promise into something tangible, something that will attract talent.

Backing up a bit, the report, called “The Worthington Street District Plan,” lays out not only what the city can do with the multi-block area in its central business district, but also the stern challenges that lie in the way.

Indeed, as Hively pointed out at the press event, probably every city in the country would like to create a thriving innovation district, but certainly not all of them can. To replicate, even on a much smaller scale, what has been accomplished in Cambridge, Silicon Valley, and North Carolina’s Research Triangle will take some luck, a good deal of patience, and, well, some innovation.

And the city is not exactly starting from a position of strength. While this area of the city has some assets, most of them — like Apremont Triangle, Stearns Square, the existing entertainment district, and Union Station — are not going to attract that aforementioned talent, at least not in their current form.

But there is some momentum in a few key areas — promoting entrepreneurship, opening up avenues to capital, and promoting innovation. This momentum is best exemplified in initiatives like Valley Venture Mentors, which encourages entrepreneurship and helps fledgling businesses get off the ground; the Baystate Innovation Center, described as a mix between an incubator and an accelerator now taking shape in downtown Springfield; and Tech Foundry, which is billed as a training ground for those who might enter the technology field.

And there are other positive developments, such as the new UMass Center at Springfield in Tower Square and the potential for a casino in the South End.

But as Hively pointed out, talent is driven by job opportunities and quality of life. Springfield can’t match Cambridge, Boston, or San Francisco, or even Providence or Lowell at this time.

It must do something about both crime and the perception of crime, foster the development of more restaurants, shops, and cultural attractions, and, above all else, help create attractive places for people to live.

At the moment, there is a distinct lack of people who have a desire to live, work, or start a business downtown, and this is the equation that simply must change.

How? That’s the $64,000 question. Most observers say you can’t just build housing and then hope eateries, clubs, and shops will follow. Likewise, you can’t — or shouldn’t — open those businesses until you are sure there is a critical mass of people with disposable income to support them.

Is an innovation district possible? Of course it is. Is it doable in Springfield? Perhaps, but, then again, most every city has tried or is trying to create one, and success has been hard to come by.

One thing is for sure. There is little, if any, time to waste, and the city will have to be energetic and imaginative if it is going to attract the talent needed to make an innovation district thrive.

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