High-Tech Denton: Hotspot, yet Still Low Priority for the City
By now many of you have read and probably participated in the flurry of re-postings of Richard Florida’s recent piece for The Atlantic, “America’s Top 25 High-Tech Hotspots,” where Denton (the county, at least) was ranked #6. There is a tendency among those of us in leadership to cheer lead such news, as if it is the result of some great strategy coming from city and business leaders. It’s not, as I’ll point out shortly, but I certainly understand the inclination to celebrate. After all, any solid economic development plan for a city involves savvy marketing and painting a pretty picture of what we want people to think and feel about that city.
This is where civic and business leaders can get tripped up to the detriment of the health of a local economy: we believe the hype and lose sight of the important distinction between the marketing and the reality.
The reality is that Denton has no strategy to foster or leverage our high-tech assets. If something good is happening locally in this industry, it is the result of an organic mixing of assets, which we have in abundance, that cities all over the country are tripping over themselves to get: two major universities, a growing creative class who want to stay in the city, an indie music and culture scene that is touted in national and international publications, a concentrated, creative and cultural sense of place, centered geographically with our downtown, and an enormous DIY ethos and ecosystem. We are ripe for our own tech boom, a vibrant startup culture, and the go-to city regionally for creative technology.
But this is not reflected in our economic development strategies, now going on 10 years old.
Knowing this and hearing a consistent concern among citizens that Denton needs a stronger employment base for our college grads, I developed a Creative Economy Initiative my first year in office to begin moving us in that direction and to begin the process of creating more substantial jobs, particularly within the creative tech fields, to our city. That led to the first Denton Creatives Mixer, where Denton’s best and brightest came together to connect and strategize. As a result, CreateDenton.com was launched to highlight our high-tech assets, DFW media outlets began paying attention, and businesses and collaborative projects were spawned. We began talking about the possibility of creating a collaborative, co-working space in Denton and started collaborating with experts at our two universities. Knowing that smart people want to live in a city where innovation is valued even at City Hall, we began to activate our top tech minds to find technological solutions to civic problems.
I sat down with city leaders, business leaders, and economic development leaders to push us in this direction, understanding that cities around the nation were quickly retooling to best situate their strategies for the rapidly changing 21st century economy and knowing that other cities in our region were already taking advantage of our city’s best assets for their gain. I submitted several budget proposals during this summer’s budget talks aimed at targeting this industry, including an updated economic development strategy plan, a plan to get downtown outfitted with the fastest internet in the city and develop it into an Innovation District, city partnership in a collaborative workspace, and city programs aimed at incubating and accelerating startups with high-growth potential. The response? Let’s keep doing what we’ve been doing.
Meanwhile, startups are on the rise, tech firms are beginning to realize that we have an abundance of talent, many of whom are willing to work for less than their big city counterparts if it means they can stay in Denton, and we have hoards of independent tech contractors, like this guy leading an IT team at LivingSocial, working in and out of our city’s coffee shops and bars. We are seeing tech-centered companies relocating to Denton and bringing in higher paying jobs than many of the companies receiving economic incentives from the city. GSATi and the marketing arm of the Dallas office of Spain’s Santander have both recently set-up downtown, the latter selling their bosses on the fact that the bulk of their talent pool was coming from here anyway. It appears an ed tech cluster is beginning to emerge, pioneered perhaps by formerly Denton-based eInstruction (their early tech talent still very present in Denton) and joined by the likes of All In Learning (spin-off of eInstruction), iTeach Texas, and ReadyRosie (disclosure: my wife is the founder). We’ve got music tech, film tech, marketing tech, and even animal tech!
With so much already happening and untapped potential for partnerships, initiatives, and targeted programs ready to be leveraged for relatively little cost, why hasn’t the city, Chamber, and Economic Development Partnership Board rushed to capitalize on our high-tech credentials? I’ve discovered some problems in the way we tend to think about economic development in Denton, but chief among them is this: we have a tendency to focus primarily on the economic indicators of property and sales tax and measure our success accordingly.
These two comprise the bulk of the revenue into the corporate entity that is the city. As such, “economic development” becomes synonymous with the growth of the city’s revenue stream. While necessary, they are not sufficient for a healthy local economy and tend to distract from other economic realities affecting our citizens. For example, much cheerleading surrounds our quick recovery from the recent national recession, as seen by these two indicators. Meanwhile, our median household income is a mere $42,000, an estimated 40-50% of our city’s kids attending Denton ISD are on free and reduced lunch, and our best and brightest are forced to take low-skilled jobs in town, commute South, or leave our city altogether in order to find substantial employment opportunities.
Most tech industry companies in Denton, especially in their early stages, don’t change the city’s property or sales tax game. Santander, our new downtown firm, has brought twenty higher wage jobs from Dallas to Denton but will not capture our attention precisely because job growth on its own is not a metric of success for our economic development efforts. We have a bunch of techies working in and out of coffee shops pulling in $100 an hour. We have profitable startups working out of homes, bringing outside money into Denton with potential to scale big. With a little bit of fostering, we can make sure these firms, workers, and startups see Denton as a vibrant place for them to innovate and hopefully stay when they get big. Instead, the bulk of our attention is given to bringing in the next Walmart (sales tax) and the next Peterbilt (property tax), whether or not they bring in more substantial jobs for our citizens or improve the local economic landscape – their contribution to the city coffers is what is important according to our current metrics. We need to broaden that focus.
Here are my suggestions of where we should go from here in order to take advantage of our high-tech assets:
MARKET THE HECK OUT OF THIS: we need to create a great looking, yet simple website devoted specifically to Denton being the 6th Top High-Tech Hotspot, featuring our existing tech firms, startups, and independents, and claiming to be the region’s go-to spot for their creative tech needs. This is easy and very inexpensive.
CREATE A DOWNTOWN INNOVATION DISTRICT: we’ve got great restaurants, bars, music venues, and a growing number of apartments. Now let’s bring more significant jobs to spend their money at those places and foster a culture of innovation by taking advantage of the only clearly-defined sense of creative place in DFW. Boston did just this on top of an existing Arts District with great success – check them out.
HIGH SPEED INTERNET: high speed fiber is to the 21st century what electricity was to the 20th. We need to make sure our entire city has access to the best internet options available, particularly our downtown area. And we need to get aggressive, researching possibilities with existing dark fiber and leading the charge to change Texas’ statutory monopoly of Big Telecomm (which prevents cities from creating their own internet utility). Imagine if we found a way to get Downtown Denton the fastest internet in the state? See what they did in Chattanooga and how that’s been an economic development game-changer.
LEVERAGE UNIVERSITY ASSETS: UNT has resources, programs, and experts at the Murphy Center for Entrepreneurship, research partnership possibilities and incubator space at Discovery Park, the state’s top young tech minds at the Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science (recently recognized as having more Siemens Competition semifinalists than any school in the nation), and a culture of innovation fostered at the Innovation Greenhouse. There are hundreds of cities that would love to have any one of these assets at their disposal. We can begin by simply cataloging the resources that are accessible to any entrepreneur and market these as assets and resources to foster entrepreneurship and innovation in Denton. Then let’s be about coordinating high level, mutually-beneficial strategies aimed at incubating and accelerating new businesses. Find successes, advertise them, and let this momentum build.
FOSTER A START-UP CULTURE: make it a point to celebrate and encourage making, creating, risk-taking, innovating, hacking, subverting, and the like. Help make entrepreneurship sexy in Denton and watch it and our economy grow. I recommend Brad Feld’s, Startup Communities as a great starting point to thinking about this. I also love this Bloomberg article on The Reality of What Makes Silicon Valley Tick.
DEVELOP “ECONOMIC GARDENING” STRATEGIES: most job growth in cities happens from within local businesses, not from bringing in outside companies. Let’s develop metrics that encourage our economic development partners to invest our time, money, and resources where it makes the most sense: local companies with fast/high growth potential.
COLLABORATIVE CO-WORKING SPACE and INCUBATOR: As we get serious about fostering our economic ecosystem, we can move more quickly if there was a centrally-located place by which to attract attention, find resources, host programs, and house our budding startups and independent tech contractors. A joint university, city, and private partnership could speed this along and become a center piece for our Downtown Innovation District. See what McKinney did with their recently-opened Collide Center.
6th top high-tech hotspot in the nation… We can celebrate this news or we can take advantage of it.