by Greg Reibman
What’s the best way to nurture the innovation economy in the Newton and Needham?
That’s a question our chamber has been pondering since I arrived as your president four years ago this month, and especially over the past several months,
thanks to a grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration in partnership with the City of Newton, Town of Needham, local businesses and non-profits.
Since the fall, we’ve been working with a team of economic development experts at Camoin Associates to conduct a competitiveness study and create a marketing plan for the area along the Newton-Needham line we’ve labeled the N2 Innovation Corridor.
We engaged Camoin to help us determine if there was a market for an inner suburban innovation district that would offer growing businesses, entrepreneurs and workers an alternative to Kendall Square, Boston’s Seaport and other innovation hubs nationwide and across the globe.
We started knowing we have a few things in our favor.
We know innovative companies — TripAdvisor, PTC, Turbine, SharkNinja, Verastem, CyberArk, BigBelly Solar, Karyopharm Therapeutics and many others — saw the value of locating their global operations in Newton and Needham.
We also know that we have real estate opportunities here – including more than 500 acres of commercial, restaurant and retail space in the N2 Corridor – that offers a competitive alternative (lower rents, plentiful parking, easy access to major highways etc.) to Boston and Cambridge and other markets.
But we also knew we had a lot to do.
Old office park models no longer work. Neither do antiquated zoning codes and regulations. A new generation of employees want different housing options, different transportation options and cool places to hang out.
Our economy – regionally, nationally and globally – was undergoing rapid transformation; not just from a recession followed by a slow recovery, but from fundamental shifts in digital technologies, globalization, the growth of millennials and the need for continuous learning.
We hired Camoin to help us determine how we could apply what we’re seeing locally and globally to our inner suburban communities.
Could we transform two tired office parks and the surrounding area into an innovative live-work-play ecosystem? How do we share our vision and provide value to the employers and employees here and to those we’d like to attract?
And – while this is more dependent on everyone reading this than Camoin — can we convince our elected leaders to embrace and support needed change?
Our work with Camoin is more than halfway complete and is moving from information gathering to vision, goal and strategy development.
So, what have we learned through this phase of the work?
Overall, we confirmed that our region has many assets to compete in this transforming environment. We have talent, educational institutions, innovators, diversity, infrastructure, leading companies, entrepreneurs, growth capital and leaders in both municipalities who share our vision.
Greater Boston is a known brand globally for the innovation economy, that’s certainly our biggest asset. But here and elsewhere there is significant competition among communities and districts looking to accomplish the same things we are.
While the N2 Corridor, Newton and Needham have many of the ingredients to compete and participate in Greater Boston’s innovation economy ecosystem (including an educated population, leading companies, education institutions, reasonable but not outstanding mass transit and proximity to the urban core), more needs to be done to spur and support connections and interactions.
Transformative thinking, approaches, processes and actions are needed to meet the changing demand and to address a number of key issues:
Newton’s and Needham’s aging population, high housing prices and inadequate direct transit service to the N2 Corridor means that companies that want to attract millennial workers here are having difficulty. There is an unmistakable trend of young, highly educated professionals opting to live in more urban areas, not our suburban communities. But talent is a prerequisite for attracting, retaining, and creating companies in the corridor, so N2 needs to address this challenge with innovative approaches. The trend towards urbanization is due to both the greater number of cultural and recreational amenities in cities, and the tighter networks. To be competitive, we will need to develop our networks and add amenities.
Since Greater Boston already has an innovation image and other suburbs are better known as places for innovative companies to locate, a major challenge for us is to elevate our visibility as place where innovation can thrive. We need to fill in the gaps with the elements commonly associated with such a district—innovators, entrepreneurs and research entities. The N2 Corridor can borrow from and build upon existing assets nearby, including the high educational attainment of the local population, the high proportion of foreign-born residents and the high levels of innovation as evidenced by the number of patents issued locally. Residents in our communities are quite entrepreneurial. Many work for the companies the N2 Corridor would likely target to attract. We have an opportunity to keep the folks who live in Newton and Needham working in Newton and Needham rather than having them commute out.
So what’s next for the process? Over the next two months the chamber and our public-private partners will continue our work with Camoin to develop a clear vison and mission, as well as related goals. This will provide us with a strategic framework, actions and a process for implementation.
By early this summer, the chamber will release a draft strategy for the N2 Innovation Corridor and solicit feedback from the public through an online survey.
I can’t wait to share the details and look forward to your input.
Greg Reibman is president of the Newton-Needham Regional Chamber.