Stoke: Preparing Denton for the 21st Century Economy

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stoke On the council’s agenda today is a discussion on the state of Stoke, a co-working space and high tech incubator that just launched this summer. I’m excited to have this important conversation.

The idea for a coworking space in Denton came about after several years of community discussions, collaborative partnerships with community tech leaders, entrepreneurs, and our two universities. What I realized early in my tenure on council was that Denton had all the ingredients to make our community a hot bed for tech-related entrepreneurial activity. We have here one of the most vibrant, hip, tolerant, and creative cities in the nation – the kind of city that young professionals and families are seeking. Yet we don’t yet have a local economy built to employ them. Our best and brightest are leaving for cities with greater opportunities. And as I noted in 2013, while many outsiders see this potential in Denton, our city and business leaders have yet to develop a cohesive, coherent roadmap to bring our local economy into the 21st century.

Stoke can and should play a role in that – but only if it is a part of a broader plan to highlight, foster, and accelerate entrepreneurial, startup, and tech-related economic development. Stoke, if done right, can be the center of gravity for this.

Just think about it geographically: walkable and equidistant from two major universities, at the northern terminus of the largest public train system in the country connecting us to the DFW region, in the middle of the most promising music scene in the nation, and on the doorstep of our most culturally diverse neighborhoods – Southeast Denton, it has the potential to not only help revitalize our local economy, but also a new area of town. Think Innovation District here.

What follows is a roadmap for how we can get things moving in the right direction. I put together a similar list of proposals here back in 2013, which incidentally had the development of a coworking space as one of its priorities, but let’s update that a bit:

Gathering all the Players
Citizens came up with this idea in the first place. Our city is full of talented, ambitious people with varied experience ready to help Denton achieve its goals of becoming a tech-centered startup hub. And that crowd has grown since we started talking about it. There is no shortage of local experts who we should sit down with to help us map out goals and metrics for both Stoke and our city’s tech economic development goals.

Let’s host a “State of Denton Tech” gathering with an aim of connecting the dots, brainstorming, and developing long and short term goals. Tech Mill should be there. Local startup founders should be there. Big and small existing tech business leaders should be there. Let’s do that this Spring.

Last year’s Leadership Denton team recommended the creation of a Denton Tech Council to help guide economic development efforts in this arena. Let’s get that going and playing a part in this.

Every city serious about fostering its tech and startup scene finds robust paths of participation for its university partners. We need TWU and UNT at the table and participating in a big way.

Gather all the Metrics
Thinking like a startup thinks, Stoke should start measuring everything – even if it doesn’t yet know whether those metrics will be useful. As a community that is a very young player in this game, we need to learn from the data, make assessments often, and iterate accordingly:

Rethink the Leasing Policy
Stoke should be a place for people at every stage of tech business and startup development: from someone with a crazy idea to a consolidated team starting to develop their concept to a coder looking for a desk for her freelance work.

The open co-working space should be open to all regardless of their type of work and at a price point that is inclusive. This is precisely where you need a collision of ideas, personalities, and expertise. Programmers need designers. New ideas need legal advice. A teacher with a new idea to transform education needs to find a kindred spirit with tech abilities. A high school or college student might just want to hang with the “cool kids” in order to find a break or learn something new. Lower the price point until the place packs out. Build momentum and let the cost of desks adjust accordingly. I want a kid from South East Denton with a dream to be able to afford to hang out there. I want the immigrant single mom from the adjacent neighborhood with a business idea to afford it. Make this an easy entry point and let the magic happen.

The office space is where we can get very strategic. This shouldn’t be a place for businesses or offices that could very well exist anywhere else in the city. These should be reserved for early stage startups that are putting their nose to the grind. They need to be in a place of innovation with easy access to people, ideas, resources, and caffeine. If it’s done right, the office spaces should see a high turnover. Either the idea failed or it grew itself out of that space. Leases should be created that allow easy entry to early stage concepts that demonstrate promise and potential.

Program the Hell out of the Place
A key to Stoke’s value to the community is as a platform for ideas, creativity, and innovation, spanning many passions and industries. The best ideas for business, culture, the arts, the city, and our nation should find their genesis there. Like an iPhone is to the independent community of app developers, Stoke should develop a path for anyone with a great idea to try their hand at programming. Many will fail, but some will be the Twitter of our city. Find out what works, what is needed, what is helpful, and start curating programming in that direction.

This is also where Stoke can create a gateway for anyone in the city. Who do we want at the table? Let’s give them a night and a platform. Involve Denton ISD, our universities, the Chamber of Commerce, our business leaders, our artistic community – shoulder tap when necessary.

Put it in Context
Stoke is the result of a much larger conversation about how we prepare our city to be a player in the 21st century economy. As such, its goals and metrics don’t stand alone. The city, in partnership with the players I mentioned above, the Economic Development Partnership Board, and the Chamber of Commerce should update our economic development strategies to include high tech and developing a startup culture as a part of our mix.

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.

We can and must do better. Stoke is a step in the right direction.

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