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January 23, 2007

Are we on the path to Austin, Aspen, or maybe Boulder?

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On January 23, 2007, the Virginia Piedmont Technology Council (VPTC) held a town hall meeting entitled: “Pursuing Technology for a Robust Economy--Choosing our future: Austin or Aspen.”  The principal speakers were Gary Henry (longtime resident, technology leader and Chair of the VPTC Board) and Katie Bullard with AngelouEconomics in Austin, Texas.  Ms. Bullard was previously Budget Director for the City of Charlottesville.

[Charlottesville Podcasting has the audioVPTC's website has the presentations]

The Virginia Piedmont Technology Council wants to be a catalyst to spark a collaborative effort to create a larger technology-based economy in Charlottesville.  They are asking the question… Do we want to look more like Aspen, CO (i.e. completely unaffordable with no middle class) or Austin, TX (a highly rated community with a strong technology economy, more affordable cost of living, and a substantial middle class)?

VPTC sees this initiative as balancing the scale of our economy which is weighted today towards retirees and tourism.  I applaud their search for some of the ingredients in a common agenda that could help us achieve quality growth, growth that would benefit the community as a whole.  They have framed this as a desire to add balance to our economy and generate economic vitality.  Charlottesville Tomorrow shares those objectives.  We are going to grow, let’s make sure it is quality growth that enhances the community and doesn’t sacrifice our quality of life.

In their presentation, VPTC identified the need for a critical mass of new jobs and technology companies.  They want to build Charlottesville’s reputation so it becomes the #1 place to locate or incubate a small technology company.  This is ideally defined as home-grown technology businesses that employ 5-25 people.

VPTC’s three primary goals in this initiative are:

  1. Bring this conversation to the community
  2. Develop a center for technology incubation
  3. Drive workforce development to support this effort

To measure the community’s progress down a technology path, they will define a “Technology Index” by which our technology economy’s growth can be measured.

I found the discussion helpful, but I left with many questions.  Here are a few to get people thinking.

Katie Bullard said a key indicator for Charlottesville to watch is the number of 25-44 year olds in the population (currently 29.1%).  She said we need to be at 33% or better to get young people to stay here after college and find career ladder jobs in technology companies.  Gary Henry defines “critical mass” as being opportunities (i.e. jobs) so our talented young people do not feel like they have to leave Charlottesville.  With a critical mass of opportunities, they can switch companies more easily here at home.  How many new companies and new jobs would it take to create that critical mass? 

Many of the comparisons in Ms. Bullard’s presentation were to Austin and Raleigh-Durham.
Has any other City our size figured this out?  [When I asked that question from the audience, Ms. Bullard cited Boulder, Colorado as one town already on the path of having a strong technology-based economic sector (software development).  Are there others?  Is Boulder an attractive model?]

Ms. Bullard identified our technology wages as a major problem.  “Wages here are not keeping up with the cost of living.”  The average technology wage in Charlottesville is $61,894 vs. Austin at $87,988.  When pressed on this by an audience member, Ms. Bullard said we needed to find “a couple small companies willing to pay higher wages and jump start the market.”  Is it realistic to think technology companies will come here and substantially raise wages?

Gary Henry pointed out that the technology sector is attractive because “the infrastructure impact will be minimal.”  He indicated we already have office space into which many small 5-25 person companies can go and UVA research parks are ready to expand.  What other community infrastructure (roads, schools, housing, etc.) will be needed to support the growth required to reach critical mass? Is UVA not on track to grow our technology sector with their investments at Fontaine and North Fork research parks?  If the organic growth we are seeing today is not enough, what pace of growth do we need?

In response to a question from Neil Williamson about the role of local government, Ms. Bullard said that local government should play a supporting role.  “Economic development should not be subsidized by government.”  Ms. Bullard emphasized private investment and pointed out she had never seen a regional approach work too well.  She clarified these comments for me after the lunch by indicating token financial support from local government was fine, but really economic development needed to be funded and championed by the private sector and venture capital.  Do we have the right mix of public-private investment in economic development?  How would we measure the results thus far and what needs to be done differently to more strategically serve VPTC’s goals?

As you can see, I plainly don't have all the answers, but I appreciate VPTC stimulating the conversation.

Brian Wheeler

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