Fayetteville civic, business officials seek to become Startup City of the South

by Jennifer Joyner ([email protected]) 1,517 views 

Fayetteville wants to be known as the “Startup City of the South,” and a multipronged plan is in motion for it to build on its strengths and validate the reputation, with the help of Startup Junkie Consulting. It’s part of the city’s five-year economic development plan.

“We want people who are assessing where they want to live, work and play to identify Fayetteville as the progressive business community it is,” said Susan Norton, director of communications and marketing for the city. “We want to compete. A lot of people are looking at Northwest Arkansas right now, and we want Fayetteville to shine. Not just in the region, but in the footprint of the whole area.”

City leaders believe Fayetteville’s startup scene is what will give it an edge. Much of the city’s economic development potential is tied to nurturing a healthy entrepreneurial ecosystem, according to a plan outlined by Boyette Strategic Advisors of Little Rock.

The Fayetteville First Strategic Plan, commissioned by the City Council and approved earlier this year, calls for more offerings in that realm in addition to more structure within the existing entrepreneurial environment and better marketing of the area’s resources, especially in the downtown district, viewed as a hub for entrepreneurial activity.

A number of successful startup companies located in the city – those organically formed by individuals within the community and those built around intellectual property licenses from research at the University of Arkansas – point to the quality of its entrepreneurial support system, but the city must streamline its programs and assets so they can be more effective, according to the plan.

The plan also calls for addressing gaps in the system, including limited access to capital. One recommended action is to explore forming a UA-affiliated capital fund similar to Colorado-based CSU Ventures, which invests in businesses tied to Colorado State University. However, something like that would be implemented farther down the road. For now, the city’s leadership is focused on getting its bearings.

The city entered into contracts in October with both the private company, Startup Junkie, and the Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce to work on further development of the entrepreneurial ecosystem, and it has plans to hire an in-house “economic vitality manager” next year, if the City Council approves. Startup Junkie provides one-to-one mentorship, training services and programming for entrepreneurs. Its clientele ranges from idea-stage companies on up. Some of its clients earn revenues up to $15 million, said Brett Amerine, chief operating officer.

Now, it will also serve as the main resource for startup program information and community building for the city. It is tasked with putting into action many of the initiatives described in the Boyette plan, including the centralization of all-things entrepreneurship and innovation for Fayetteville.

“One of our main deliverables is we will serve as the direct point of contact for innovation and startups wanting to engaged in the entrepreneurial community,” Amerine said.

For starters, Startup Junkie is working to create the Fayetteville Innovation Council, which will play a pivotal role, according to Amerine. Startup Junkie has begun compiling a list of potential members, which will include business leaders and community stakeholders.

Startup Junkie is also contracted to work with the city communications department to develop effective marketing and branding strategy for Fayetteville as the “Startup City of the South.”

New displays downtown will promote the idea, with wayfinding signs pointed toward successful startup ventures in the neighborhood – including Metova, Explainify and Zenwork – and also key resources like Startup Junkie and its partners, Hayseed Ventures and the nonprofit, Community Venture Foundation, which is listed as a subcontractor on the economic development project.

Norton said the signs should be up by mid-February. Around the same time, a new website for the effort will go live. StartupCityOfTheSouth.com will provide a calendar of events of interest to the entrepreneurial community in addition to resources and success stories and will be nested within the city’s economic development department’s webpage.

While promoting what the city has to offer as “Startup City of South,” “it will show that we’ve got the success stories to prove it,” Norton said. The branding theme was suggested in the Boyette plan, because the firm’s representatives were impressed by the amount of entrepreneurial activity downtown, Norton said.

The plan also called for the city to geographically define an innovation district, which will likely include downtown Fayetteville and could potentially stretch to the Arkansas Research and Technology Park, located off South School Street, about a mile away from the downtown square.

Affiliated with the University of Arkansas, the Tech Park is home to a number of innovation-based startup companies. The Boyette plan calls for its expansion, with intentions to eventually establish it as a “mini Research Triangle Park,” patterned after the successful technology hub based in Raleigh, N.C. The strategic plan points to adjacent property owned by the UA as a potential venue for the expansion and suggests it could possibly be funded by a bond issue that would be voted on by taxpayers.

The park expansion would not fall under Startup Junkie’s purview, but the company plans to keep strong ties between the two entities throughout this process, Amerine said.

“We’re very closely aligned,” he said. “Arkansas Tech Park plays an important role in the Startup City of the South and the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Fayetteville and Northwest Arkansas.”

Once the Innovation Council is formed, it will begin to implement some measures to entice new businesses to set up shop downtown. Potential incentives include financial instruments for loans, low-cost or free parking for entrepreneurs and nearby, affordable housing.

Long-term, the city is exploring the option of creating a Startup Village similar to the one formed in 2012 in Kansas City. A startup village is where entrepreneurs, tech innovators and digital creatives work and live in a collaborative community, with access to work spaces and resources. The Tech Park is one possible location for the village. This type of walkable, urban neighborhood is part of Fayetteville’s overall vision for its future. In a Startup Village the idea is also to use shared spaces and other strategies to provide low-cost residences, which is another initiative for the city.

“Several years ago, we adopted a city-wide goal to encourage attainable housing,” said Jeremy Pate, director of development services.

As the population continues to grow and with land values only increasing, the city is using multiple strategies to tackle the housing cost issue, Pate said. “There are a number of options. There’s not a one-size-fits-all approach.”

One tactic is to infuse capital into the market, he said. In October, the city agreed to a $1 million contract to help develop the Houses at Willow Bend, a planned single-family residential neighborhood in south Fayetteville that will offer tiered pricing based on income.

Cities can also provide discounts on property it owns to developers willing to build residences that offer a certain, reduced-price rent level. Another option is “cluster housing” (also called “pocket neighborhoods”) where properties are grouped closer together than in traditional neighborhoods and the residents share greenspace.

Pate said the design can result in less infrastructure cost for streets and utilities, and those savings can be passed along to residents. However, like other strategies cities can use to try to lower housing costs, there is no certainty that it will drive prices down.

“It doesn’t guarantee anything, but it helps,” Pate said.

One way to help entrepreneurs in particular is by providing housing in close proximity to their work, like in a Startup Village. The transportation savings would be significant, Pate said. Affordable, built-in residences for entrepreneurs is beneficial, he added.

“If they don’t have to worry about finding a place to live or making rent, that takes one of the stressors off. Entrepreneurs can funnel that time, talent, energy and effort into what they do best.”

That includes entrepreneurs of all ages, according to the Fayetteville First plan. Younger generations were not excluded. It calls for the forming of a Millennials advisory board and the assessing of and adding to the area’s educational programs for students.
Jessica Boyd, executive director of the Community Venture Foundation, is leading execution of the latter effort.

“The first step is figuring out what’s already out there as far as youth entrepreneurship programs in our city, in addition to what we offer through the Community Venture Foundation,” Boyd said.

The idea is to ensure groups are not duplicating efforts and then to identify and fill any gaps.

“We hope to bring all initiatives together. There are things running in silos that could be much better run in collaboration with other efforts,” she said.

After inventorying the city’s offerings, the Community Venture will explore options that could include plugging into a national organization, like TIE Young Entrepreneurs.

As part of its $150,000 annually renewable contract, Startup Junkie will continue to offer CenterSpace, its co-working area located on the second floor of the UA Pryor Center at 1 E. Center St., for free to the public during working hours Monday through Friday. Several other facilities will play key roles in the downtown innovation district, including Hayseed Ventures, which describes itself as a “venture production studio” and is located across the street from CenterSpace at 1 W. Center St.

The NWA Fab Lab, which was founded by the Fayetteville Chamber in August, is also located on the downtown square at 21 W. Mountain St. Right now, it is open by appointment only. The Chamber is also looking to create a robotics center in partnership with Multi-Craft Contractors of Springdale and Northwest Arkansas Community College in Bentonville – per instructions from the Boyette strategic plan.

Chung Tan, director of economic development for the Chamber, said there could be an announcement regarding the robotics center in early 2017. In addition to building on the downtown entrepreneurial infrastructure, the Chamber is tasked with heading up business retention and expansion efforts under its $180,000 annually renewable contract with the city.

“We are following the recommendations found in the Fayetteville First Strategic Plan, such as highlighting the legacy industries and working with them to help them stay in Fayetteville,” Tan said. “We are also working on new programs to support small businesses. Last but not least, we are putting more efforts in workforce development.”

The workforce, Norton agrees, is an essential asset to the city.

“We want to harness the workforce and make this city be where people want to be, because we need that workforce to do what we need to do,” Norton said.

And while the effort is starting downtown, it’s not limited to that neighborhood, she said.

“The scope goes well beyond downtown. We want to geographically define the hub, but we will spoke out from there, identifying new and growing business all over the city.”