ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) – It’s been almost a year since a group of city, business and University of New Mexico leaders took a trip to Florida that sparked a major economic development project in the heart of Albuquerque.
Innovate ABQ is a live, work and play community. It is spearheaded by UNM and University President Robert Frank and it aims to take inventions created in university labs, then commercialize and manufacture them in Albuquerque. The project is modeled after the University of Florida’s Innovation Square in Gainesville.
“We provide all the infrastructure, all the support systems, all the mentoring and advisory services to these young companies,” University of Florida Economic Development Director Ed Poppell told KRQE News 13 last year.
Everything startup companies need, such as accounting and legal services and access to investors, is located in one place called the “hub” near campus and downtown, in an old remodeled hospital.
The 40-acre project, which is funded by private sector money, also includes more office space, luxury apartments, hotels, restaurants, entertainment and a grocery store. Poppell said Innovation Square has been able to create jobs, keep Florida graduates and attract businesses.
President Frank, Albuquerque Mayor R.J. Berry and other businesses leaders immediately put the wheels in motions after their trip to Gainesville last January. One year later, Innovate ABQ is farther along than anyone in the group imagined.
“We’re there,” said Frank. “We just have to materialize this great potential here.”
Shortly after the trip, stakeholders hired a consulting firm to identify a good “hub” location for Innovate ABQ and decided on the old First Baptist Church building on Central and Broadway.
The university also set its sights on the Aperture Building located at Mesa Del Sol, which would serve as an immediate incubator for startups to move in while the First Baptist site is under construction.
Leaders also came up with the $7 million to buy the First Baptist site, including $2 million from Albuquerque taxpayers and a $1.5 million federal grant from the Economic Development Administration.
Innovate ABQ also secured its first private investment with a $3 million gift from the New Mexico Educators Federal Credit Union. The university foundation will donate $800,000 to cover the remaining cost of purchasing the church building and developing a master plan, according to UNM spokeswoman Dianne Anderson.
“That’s just a phenomenal game changer in this process,” Frank said. “When you have the mayor leading on one hand and you have Terry (Laudick, NMEFCU CEO) leading the business community, these two things together were just catalytic in moving this thing at lightning speed, more than we ever dreamed.”
But it hasn’t been all smooth sailing. The University Board of Regents slammed on the brakes last month after raising some serious environmental concerns with the old building site and questioning what will happen if money isn’t raised for the project as planned.
“I think the project is great,” UNM Regent Jamie Koch said. “I think it should be there. But these questions need to be asked.”
The university estimates that just renovating the church site will cost $16 million. Building more office space and parking structures is tagged at another $50 million. The hope is all the funding will come from the private sector, Frank said.
Frank said environmental concerns and cleanup are being addressed. If the project doesn’t pan out, Frank said the money invested so far will be returned.
“The worst case scenario is the university ends up buying First Baptist Church, and we own an asset that we end up selling in the future,” Frank said.
In an emergency meeting on Dec. 20, regents gave final approval of the purchase and sale of the First Baptist Church with conditions that environmental issues are resolved. No decision was made on purchasing the Aperture building. Anderson said that conversation will likely happen at the start of the new year.
Project leaders are looking ahead to 2014.
“It gives me an opportunity as a mayor to help the project,” Berry said. “I can now run transportation back and forth from the First Baptist site to the university with our bus services. We have a fiber optics line that we’re looking to put in Central Avenue that dovetails really nicely in with that. The Rail Runner comes right by there. We can talk about the cultural corridor and how culture and the arts interact with science and technology.”
In the next 12 months, Frank said the university will seek to hire a director to oversee the master plan for Innovate ABQ and to begin soliciting “knowledge” companies to Albuquerque. In 18 months, Frank hopes the main incubator and dorm are in place.
“However this turns out, we have created a sense of energy and vitality about the concept,” Frank said. “Even if it isn’t exactly what we think it is today, something good is going to come out of this conversation because we’ve created a sense of optimism and direction.”