TAMPA — After decades of growing out, Hillsborough County now wants to grow from within.

To get there, the county is jumping onto the latest trend in urban planning: building an innovation district.

Hillsborough’s proposed 2016 budget includes $2 million to create a master plan for redeveloping the area around University of South Florida. The so-called innovation district would link the economic engines in that region — like USF, Busch Gardens, Florida Hospital and Moffitt Cancer Center, among others — to try to resurrect nearby transient, high-crime neighborhoods.

The county is moving forward with the plan even though Gov. Rick Scott vetoed a $2 million matching grant. Hills­borough’s budget won’t be finalized until September.

While still in its infancy, the innovation district represents a significant shift toward redeveloping established communities instead of building office parks and corporate campuses along the spacious Interstate 75 corridor, near the expanding suburbs.

“We can take an area that is dangerous to walk, dangerous to ride a bike and, in some cases, dangerous to drive and drop people off, and improve and enhance the community through the attraction of companies and businesses,” said former county Commissioner Mark Sharpe, who leads the push to create the district as director of the Tampa Innovation Alliance.

Sharpe estimates the idea could attract up to $1 billion in development.

Moving in millennials

But what exactly is an innovation district — a term that sounds as visionary as it does vague — and how would it help the county achieve that goal?

Innovation districts have sprouted up in urban hubs throughout the country as younger workers have gravitated toward cities.

The districts are often located around existing economic anchors, like hospitals and universities, that were built away from downtown where there’s more space. These large employers have good-paying jobs and significant research capacity, but also realized they need to better position themselves to attract well-educated millennials, who tend to be single and want to live and play near where they work.

As it is, innovation districts are a mix of new business space with housing, retail, parks, restaurants and bars. It’s a departure from the once in-vogue business parks of the past 20 years, which sprawled out into large suburban spaces and were vacated after the workday.

Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik’s $1 billion redevelopment aims to create that kind of millennial-friendly space in downtown Tampa. That could create regional competition for the USF-area district, but Sharpe believes the two developments would work in harmony.

“There’s a desire to bring a large company downtown, but they couldn’t manufacture there,” Sharpe said. “So they could bring their headquarters downtown and manufacturing comes toward the university area.”

Beyond building space for new companies to move in or startup, innovation districts also hope to grow and accelerate businesses by providing support programs and training, plus opportunities for workers to mingle, network and, hopefully, innovate.

Dennis Lower, president and CEO of the Cortex Innovation Community in St. Louis, put it this way:

“In the technology sector, people of credentials have a passport to go anywhere, and they will go to the coolest places they can find,” he said. “So if you’re not creating cool, you will have a problem.”

Transformative time

St. Louis’ innovation community is considered one of the most successful innovation districts in the country. It started in 2002 and picked up speed in 2006. It is now home to 170 companies, and Lower said they’re adding new attractions like a 3.5-acre park, a bikeshare program and weekly networking events that can attract as many as 500 people.

“If you’re not creating an environment and all you’re creating are buildings,” Lower said, “you’re going to struggle.”

In addition to USF, a research institution that in recent years produced more patents than almost any other Southeast U.S. college, the area near Fowler Avenue contains the pieces that can make for a successful innovation district, like Moffitt and an existing research park. New businesses can tap into that intellectual property and research infrastructure.

The plan also comes during a transformative time for that area: University Mall is getting a major, much-needed overhaul under new ownership and the Museum of Science and Industry is studying a potential move downtown, which would open up 80 acres of county-owned land for new purposes.

But there are challenges as well, including the region’s transportation woes. The county is weighing a half-cent sales tax increase to help alleviate gridlock.

Sharpe and county officials hope the new revenue could also eventually bring new transit systems to link the innovation district to downtown, West Shore and Tampa International Airport — particularly for millennials that increasingly eschew cars.

The county must also finally address the nearby low-income neighborhoods, said Commissioner Victor Crist.

“If you don’t stabilize the neighborhood and educate the area, you won’t have a viable workforce and you’ll continue to have high crime and people won’t want to move there no matter what you do,” Crist said.

In a report last year, the Brookings Institution noted that many of these districts have sprung up in underutilized or economically depressed areas. But lifting up the people in those communities must be baked into the mission of the innovation district for it to succeed, Lower said. Cortex, for example, offers coding classes for women and minorities.

“That piece is very, very critical to look at when you’re starting a new district,” Lower said. “You want to connect to all the elements, and if you don’t deal with it from the beginning, it’s going to be looked at as a token, and that’s not where millennials’ mind-sets are.”

Contact Steve Contorno at scontorno@tampabay.com. Follow @scontorno.

Hillsborough’s next big plan is an innovation district. But what is it? 07/17/15
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