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In the zone

Does thinking make it so?

Let’s hope that’s the case, at least when it comes to the new Downtown Innovation Zone. Designated four months ago, the DIZ is less geography than it is psychology—an identity designed to bring downtown businesses and organizations together while also aiming to draw others into the center city.

As reporter Kerry Feltner describes in this week’s Special Report cover story, Rochester’s DIZ is one of numerous innovation districts taking shape around the country. As a May 2014 report from the Brookings Institution put it, “a remarkable shift is occurring in the spatial geography of innovation.”

While the idea has gained traction over the last half-decade, its roots actually go back farther. Michael Porter’s theory of clusters, describing a geographic concentration of linked businesses, in many ways was a precursor. So, too, are suburban models like Silicon Valley.

What’s changed in recent years, as the Brookings report notes, is the fact “a rising number of innovative firms and talented workers are choosing to congregate and co-locate in compact, amenity-rich enclaves in the cores of central cities.”

By creating an innovation zone downtown, the city has given a name to a pre-existing fact. Look at the map on the DIZ website and you’ll find dozens of technology and creative enterprises already located inside the zone.

A chief goal, of course, is to bring even more jobs back into the city. New data from Oregon-based City Observatory shows that city centers in the nation’s metropolitan areas are now are seeing faster job growth than areas farther from the urban core. “This ‘center-led’ growth represents the reversal of a historic trend of job de-centralization that has persisted for the past half century,” the think tank notes.

Many economic development strategies rely on special funding and tax breaks; by contrast, the Rochester Downtown Innovation Zone is an idea and an attitude, which together could prove to be a powerful magnet.

Might the DIZ prove to be nothing more than a fad? Sure. But it has a real chance to be much more.

2/27/15 (c) 2015 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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