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Area leaders hear of economic, community benefits forecast for innovation district

Wednesday, January 29, 2020 by Chad Swiatecki

A market analysis of the burgeoning health care innovation district in the northeastern section of downtown forecasts the cluster of businesses could eventually increase property values by an additional $102 million over standard development, and bring the city an estimated $12 million per year in additional property tax revenue.

Those were some of the findings shared at a luncheon Tuesday organized by the Downtown Austin Alliance, which is taking an active role in recruiting businesses and curating the overall character of the district that is anchored by the University of Texas’ Dell Medical School. The gathering brought City Council members, state and county lawmakers, and an assortment of business leaders together to hear the findings of North Carolina-based HR&A Advisors, which performed the analysis.

In summary, the firm found Austin’s reputation as a magnet for creative and technology talent will be bolstered by the health care and life sciences industries expected to take root in the area that runs along Red River Street from Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to Lady Bird Lake.

Bob Geolas, a partner with HR&A, said the city and the nonprofit Capital City Innovation will need to work to attract more large players like the medical school to build on the area’s momentum.

“The convergence of both the high-tech work you do in networking and telecommunications tied to health care and life sciences provides a unique niche in the marketplace, and the convergence of those technologies provides something that really sets you apart,” he said. “With (the medical school) already in the district and providing resources and talent and attraction you had that programmatic element. Don’t let that be the only one, and continue to look for other research entities, institutes, university programs, nonprofits and other groups that can continue to add value, because companies will grow here when the talent is close by.”

Geolas repeatedly urged those in attendance to remember the importance of curating programming and tenants in the area that will turn it into an “idea generator” with appeal for families and working-class residents instead of only advanced degree holders. He said similar approaches in other cities building knowledge economies have produced favorable economic results and community benefits, with the strength of Austin’s economy adding even more potential.

“You have the opportunity to create a district that will create far more value as a real estate opportunity and a taxing authority than you would have gotten just by letting the market do the work. What can you do with that additional … let’s call it profit,” he said. “You can put some of those investments into creating special spaces that preserve accessibility and affordability. That could be for entrepreneurs, for startup companies, for workforce housing, for public transit and things that make it easy for people to come in.”

Mayor Steve Adler said the growing district is one important project among many underway in that section of downtown, joining the Waterloo Greenway parks system, the forthcoming expansion of the Austin Convention Center and the potential for mass transit in the area if voters approve a bond referendum expected for the November election.

“When you think of all the things happening in this part of downtown it is incredibly exciting for this city,” he said. “There’s massive investment in who we are and our quality of life, and not just an immediate impact but a truly regional impact. Ideas that were really exciting 10, 20 years ago are happening now on our watch and we have got to keep them going forward.”

State Sen. Kirk Watson sounded the call for the medical school and its potential influence on the area in his 2011 speech declaring 10 goals to achieve in 10 years. On Tuesday he said the district’s growth will help to reshape that portion of the city along with the ambitious reconstruction plans being discussed for Interstate 35.

“Its location so near I-35 creates the opportunity for this area to be planned in a way that now allows old barriers to be torn down and communities that have been wrongly split, whether by accidents of geography or mistakes of history, to be connected,” he said. “You’ve seen what the vision for that place can be. I’m very pleased that we have that opportunity.”

Photo by Wade Brooks made available through a Creative Commons license.

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