Seeds of a downtown ‘innovation district’?

Guest post by David Cozad, Aiken resident and retiree and member of the Mill on Park Advisory Council

As of late, we haven’t had much good economic news in Aiken. In particular, the sobering findings of an economic baseline study have been covered extensively in the pages of the Aiken Standard.

Even so, there are a few start-ups that show promise of being game changers. One of those is The Mill on Park, an office community for small businesses at the southeast corner of Park and Laurens, offered by Caradasa LLC, in partnership with USC Aiken.

One of the encouraging signs is the speed with which most of the available spaces at the Mill have been snapped up. However, an even bigger plus is its potential as a catalyst for what has become known around the country as urban “innovation districts.”

This phenomenon is described in the 2013 book, “The Metropolitan Revolution,” by Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley. Over the past decade, these innovation districts have sprung up in a variety of forms. Katz and Bradley cite evidence that a disproportionate percentage of our national economic recovery is happening because of the rise of these districts.

Most of them are in larger metropolitan areas; virtually every metro more than one-half million in population has one. However, it appears there is nothing to prevent the concept from working in smaller population centers such as Aiken.

The heart of the idea is that various business enterprises and other activities (cultural, governmental, educational, etc.) choose to locate in close proximity to each other, in order to benefit from resulting synergies and innovation that allow each to thrive more than they would have separately.

As a result, people not only want to shop and work there, but want to live right in the middle of this activity hub. Affordable housing then booms as part of the mix, and adjacent public spaces become venues for all manner of entertainment and cultural activities. In his book “Walkable City,” Jeff Speck relates the astonishing percentage of people, both in the under-40 crowd and the over-60 demographic, who now prefer to live in such settings.

And one of the best aspects of these urban innovation districts is that they often happen without public sector tax dollars coming into play. In many instances, the main role for government has been simply to relax some of the outdated mid-20th century zoning regulations that would otherwise prevent some of the creative mixed uses that are essential to the vitality of such a district.

In fact, it might be argued that downtown Aiken is already primed to become such a space, because of the unique blend of businesses, governmental offices and enjoyable public spaces. This transition can be accomplished while still preserving the unique character of Aiken.

At present, Aiken City Council is considering options for improvements to The Alley, repurposing the downstairs of the Municipal Building, and possible redevelopment of the property immediately to the east of that, along The Alley and Newberry.

What next steps might attract increased business development, more meeting space and public events, and affordable residential for young professionals and retirees? And can The Mill/USC Aiken partnership provide some of the heretofore missing ingredients to help enable that transition?

According to its developer Catie Rabun, The Mill does not aspire to be a “business incubator” of the sort that is driving much progress in larger communities such as Greenville and Charleston. That model would limit her tenancy strictly to business startups. “Really, we are just a facility that helps any small business of any size or age thrive in a downtown setting because of the proximity to other similarly sized business within the building, but also because of the proximity to an active, mixed-use, walkable downtown (opposed to a secluded home office, garage studio, or suburban office building).”

How cool would it be if an enterprise such as the Mill could help catalyze the crucial next steps for downtown Aiken to become an innovation district? It could be just the jump start Aiken needs in order to revitalize its economy without changing who we are.