You know what Gainesville really needs on its march to become Innovation City?
More food trucks.
Ok, that’s a simplification. But it is one of the “baby steps” that Jim O’Connell says the city should take as Gainesville continues to nourish and grow it’s own start-up tech culture.
O’Connell is director of UF Innovate. His job being to “push patents out the door,” to channel the fruits of faculty research into new companies and new jobs.
And to keep as many of them as possible here in Gainesville.
“I have roughly 400 people working in the Innovation Hub who have to go someplace else to eat lunch,” he says. “We need a food truck park, and right now there are no guidelines on how to create that.”
Actually there soon may be. A food truck draft plan has been circulating in City Hall and will soon go before the Plan Board for review.
But baby steps aside, the larger point O’Connell made at a breakfast presentation last week was one of setting realistic goals and expectations for Gainesville’s high-tech future.
Gainesville is never going to be Silicon Valley. Building the financial resources and tech infrastructure that has developed around institutions like Stanford and MIT was the work of decades and will not likely be replicated in a city that is primarily known for “football and The Swamp…we don’t have the brand to compete on that level.
“Nobody is going to move to Gainesville and put 5,000 jobs here,” he said. “Organically, home-grown companies are the ones that will stay put.”
And while UF faculty “are great for generating ideas and patents,” it is usually younger grad students who go forward and create start-up companies.
“We need to attract them and keep them here, and they want to live in the downtown area,” he said. “We need high-end condos where somebody making 80 grand a year can walk to the bars, restaurants, micro-breweries and all the stuff people that age have come to expect.”
And as new companies take root, they will also need laboratory and office space that doesn’t currently exist. “We need more. We don’t have it. And we will lose companies if we don’t have a way to provide it.”
And that’s the dilemma. Of late Gainesville has experienced a construction boom that seems to be mainly focused on high-end student housing. It’s been happening all up and down University Avenue and 13th Street.
But at some point there is bound to be a glut in that sector. And then what comes next?
Just how, or even if, the city can encourage close-in residential and commercial development of the kind O’Connell says is needed to support the start-up economy is a complicated question. Even more so is whether developers and financial institutions will be willing to take the risks involved in creating something other than student housing.
“We are entrepreneurial ecosystem developers,” O’Connell said of UF Innovate. “We need to work on the money, the management team, the infrastructure…we need to create the entire continuum.”
But, he said, “my team cannot do all this on their own. We desperately need people on the outside, people with business acumen…We need a public-private partnership.” And currently there appears to be “no strategy, no plan,” to foster Gainesville’s entrepreneurial infrastructure.
Hence baby steps. This notion of town-gown collaboration on “simple, quick solutions so we can start marching forward.”
So food trucks today, high-end apartments tomorrow?
(Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun.”