Tom Eblen

Economic development in university cities is all about collaboration

Wade Troxell, mayor of Fort Collins, Colorado.
Wade Troxell, mayor of Fort Collins, Colorado. Photo provided

What are the secrets to economic development? An important one is collaboration.

That point came through clearly last Thursday, when the University of Kentucky’s Gaines Center for the Humanities held its annual Lafayette Seminar in Public Issues.

The keynote speaker was Wade Troxell, mayor of Fort Collins, Colo. He then took questions along with Lexington Mayor Jim Gray from an audience of about 50 people that included some of Lexington’s most influential citizens.

Their topic was “university cities” — how they can prosper and what they can learn from one another. The seminar grew out of research by Scott Shapiro, one of Gray’s top aides.

Shapiro was analyzing data last year when he noticed that Lexington shared strikingly similar characteristics with five other cities: Fort Collins; Lincoln, Neb.; Madison, Wis.; Ann Arbor, Mich.; and Durham-Chapel Hill, N.C.

Each city has a metro population of between 250,000 and 1 million and is closely tied to a major public research university. They all share characteristics that make them ripe for success in a 21st-century knowledge-based economy: a highly educated population; local talent and entrepreneurship; an openness to new ideas and a lot of arts and culture.

University cities also have other advantages: low violent crime rates, high quality of life and relatively low cost of living. And, unlike many smaller college towns, they are in a good position to leverage the university for economic development and retain talent.

That all combines to make them places where people want to live and work, which is important in a knowledge-based economy where jobs now often go where the talent is, rather than the other way around.

For that reason, Fort Collins, which is 60 miles north of Denver and Boulder, has put a lot of emphasis on quality-of-life improvements, including parks and recreational trails.

“We look at it as investments in the desirability of our community,” Troxell said. “Place matters, because people can live where they want to now.”

That has helped retain graduates of the city’s Colorado State University and spark a young, entrepreneurial culture. The city is home to New Belgium Brewing, and the mayor joked that the buzzwords in town are beer, bikes and bands.

Like your phone is a platform for apps, we think of our city as a platform for innovation.

Wade Troxell, mayor of Fort Collins, Colo.

Unlike many cities, Fort Collins isn’t focused on attracting employers from elsewhere.

“Our strategic goals are in this order: incubate, retain, grow and attract,” Troxell said. “The idea is to grow our own. What we’re trying to do in our community is create wealth, because then that creates opportunities and jobs and businesses.”

Troxell came to the mayor’s office last year after eight years on city council. He also has been a professor and administrator in Colorado State University’s College of Engineering for three decades. He attributed much of Fort Collins’ success to a “triple helix” of collaboration among the university, private industry and local government.

By leveraging university research and talent, Fort Collins has grown and attracted several high-tech companies and created a focus on renewable energy industries.

(That made me wonder about Lexington’s historic role as a legal and financial center for the coal industry. Could some of that expertise be redirected toward creating renewable energy industries in Kentucky now that Appalachia’s coal industry is in permanent decline?)

One joint project Troxell mentioned was called Fort ZED. It involved Fort Collins’ municipally owned electric utility, the university and 13 private-sector partners with the goal of coordinated management to reduce peak-load energy demand in two key parts of the city by up to 30 percent.

In addition to helping the city, Troxell said, Fort ZED enabled “those partners to demonstrate and showcase their technology for customers worldwide. Like your phone is a platform for apps, we think of our city as a platform for innovation.”

Like Lexington, Fort Collins is developing a “gigabit” plan to make high-speed broadband access widely available.

Fort Collins sought voter permission last year to create a public broadband utility, and referendum passed by 83 percent, Troxell said. (An industry-sponsored state law a decade ago banned public broadband utilities without local referenda.)

While the city plans to work with private broadband providers in expanding service, Troxell said, it won’t be at their mercy. (Lexington is still formulating a plan, which may include some public-private partnerships.)

Just as it is important for cities to collaborate with their local universities and companies, it makes sense for university cities to share ideas and best practices with each other. Shapiro is working with UK to host a University Cities Summit that perhaps could become a regular event.