Why the Tech Center Is Important to Bloomington’s Vitality

by Mar 23, 2023

Crossposted from the Herald-Times, this is The Mill’s regular column, written by Pat East, Executive Director.

Over the next two weeks, the Bloomington Common Council will be asked to make a critical investment in our community’s innovation ecosystem by finalizing funding for the new Trades District Tech Center. This investment is not just about a building. The new Tech Center will solidify the Trades District as a major innovation hub for the Bloomington region’s emerging tech-focused economy. It will accelerate new business startups and growth-stage companies, and ultimately, create new good-paying jobs that our residents need.

This innovation hub will be located at the southwest corner of Maker Way and Madison Street, in the heart of the Trades District, a 12-acre portion of the Certified Technology Park long envisioned as a place of innovation, business attraction, and job-creation. In January, the City of Bloomington executed an agreement with The Mill, located just down the street, to manage the development of the Tech Center and market the Trades District. The Mill subsequently announced that former US Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Economic Development and former Bloomington Mayor John Fernandez has been engaged to lead these initiatives.

This vision for Bloomington’s future is well underway. The design phase for the Tech Center is nearly complete. The project design team, led by StudioAXIS, worked with the Bloomington Economic Development Corporation (BEDC), The Mill, and other key stakeholders on the architectural and construction plans. The Tech Center will be a 22,000-square-foot Class A office building designed to meet a minimum LEED Silver certification. With the Common Council’s approval, we will be able to procure construction management services, complete final construction documents, and get bids out. With full funding, we can begin construction this fall and open the Tech Center in early 2025.

Based upon updated pre-bid design estimates, the total project cost is $8.5 million. The project has been awarded a $3.5 million CARES Act Recovery Assistance Grant by the US Economic Development Administration (EDA). The proposal that will go before the Common Council requests an additional $3 million from the City’s Downtown CRED funds to complete the local share of the project’s development costs. Together with $2 million previously committed by the City’s Redevelopment Commission, the City’s total cost for this new $8.5 million building will be $5 million.

Why is this investment in the Tech Center so important?

Bloomington, despite its economic development and entrepreneurial strengths, has underlying weaknesses. In fact, in a 2020 study by SmartAssets, compared to other cities, we ranked as the most vulnerable university city impacted by COVID-19. Bloomington’s vulnerability factors included a high dependency on Indiana University employment and a high concentration of service businesses. Moreover, Monroe County’s median household income of $54,096 is 87% of the state of Indiana median household income and 78% of the US median income. In short, despite having a highly educated population and considerable assets, we’re earning less than our peers across the state and nation.

Bloomington’s tech sector startup economy is critically important to creating higher-wage opportunities for its residents and future-proofing the city’s economic health. A feasibility study completed by IU’s Public Policy Institute estimates that The Tech Center project will create 866 private sector jobs; leverage $51.5 million in total new private investment; and deliver more than $218 million of total economic impact over a ten-year period. That’s an excellent return on an investment of $5 million.

Do we need a new building to generate these results? Yes. Bloomington has several economic development and entrepreneurial assets, but we lack resources focused on tech commercialization and integrated support for post-incubation startups. The Tech Center will target new and existing resources to mature tech companies that have progressed beyond the incubation phase and have demonstrated commercial viability. Project partners from the IU Innovation and Commercialization Office (ICO) and the Ivy Tech Gayle & Bill Cook Center for Entrepreneurship have committed to deliver in-kind consulting and advisory services. The Mill’s successful operating team is well-positioned to provide program development and operational support for the Tech Center, ensuring that services are economically efficient and complement the Mill’s existing entrepreneurial programming. 

The time is right for this investment. Together with Indiana University’s renewed focus on driving regional economic development and the transformational Creating Helpful Incentives for Producing Semi-conductors and Science Act (CHIPs)-related investments at NSWC Crane Westgate, Bloomington’s Trades District is poised to become a dynamic hub for collaboration and acceleration of the region’s innovation clusters.

John is already deeply engaged with discovery work that will inform an updated vision and plan for the Trades District and Bloomington’s innovation infrastructure. We’re learning from his meetings and tours at Purdue’s Discovery Place and NSWC’s Westgate, as well as virtual meetings with Ann Arbor SPARK and the PIVOT Center at the University of Utah. Exploratory conversations with Indiana University and NSWC Crane illuminate possible strategic collaborations.

At the same time, conversations with developers and tech companies with interest in the Trades District are yielding new insights into state of our real estate market. One key insight is the need for us to create a renewed distinct identity for Trades District. There is much more to learn, build, and strategize, but we already can see a new future taking shape.

This proposed investment in the new Trades District Tech Center not only leverages the $3.5 million from the EDA, it builds on the momentum of the City’s investment in The Mill and the redevelopment of the Kiln and former Showers Administration Building (two privately funded projects). The opportunity is simply too good to pass up. We hope the Council will take this major step forward to establish the Trades District as a distinct destination for innovation.