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Local entrepreneurs seek to transform Santa Fe economy

SANTA FE, N.M. — Two local entrepreneurs with ties to San Francisco – one a Santa Fe native – would like to bring some of Silicon Valley thinking and some of its talent to Santa Fe in an effort to transform the city’s economy.

Mark Johnson, who heads up Descartes Labs, and Adam Shaening-Pokrasso, who moved the headquarters of his digital media company, 12FPS, to his hometown four years ago, shared their vision for a “holistic entrepreneurship ecosystem” with the city’s Economic Development Committee on Wednesday.

Among their ideas are creating bigger and better co-working spaces to help foster startup businesses, establishing an Entrepreneur In Residence program and recruiting talent from the Silicon Valley by using the appeal of Santa Fe – its arts scene, history, culture, outdoor recreational opportunities, mountains and skies – as selling points.

“If you decide to support something like this,” Johnson said, speaking specifically about a co-working space, “do it right.”

Doing it right requires limited involvement by the city, they said.

Their research found no successful co-working space “run” by a municipality, but that it’s important there is a relationship between whomever runs the facility and the municipality, including some financial support. It also means having the infrastructure to support it, including broadband to support high-speed internet, housing, retail businesses, restaurants – and, importantly, a coffee shop.

That’s one place where “chance collisions” between people can take place, new relationships can be built and ideas can be exchanged, they maintain.

They also made it clear they have no interest in running a co-working facility themselves; they have their own businesses to worry about. But if a new space was created, they recommend it be staffed by an executive director to oversee operations and plan programming, a community organizer to coordinate events and connect with groups, and an office manager to “sweat all the details” and handle business functions.

Johnson and Shaening-Pokrasso were awarded $10,000 in city funds to conduct the study after responding to a request for proposals.

In a letter to applicants, Mayor Javier Gonzales said the city was looking for programs or projects that would be “transformational to Santa Fe’s economy.” He said the aim was to “amplify, leverage and complement” the city’s existing assets while not duplicating other efforts and to develop a workforce with the skills to support a high-wage, high-impact economy.

“Our goal is to make sure that Santa Fe’s economy attracts and retains talent and dynamically grows businesses,” he wrote.

What Johnson and Shaening-Pokrasso came up with is Project Agora, agora being a Greek word for an open space that serves as a gathering place or commercial market. Some of the world’s most influential ideas, including the concept of democracy, were birthed at the Athenian agora, according to an article titled “How the Greek Agora Changed the World” published online by Live Science.

Percolating ideas

Co-working spaces aren’t a new idea and there are already some places, like CoLab at Second Street Studios and the Santa Fe Business Incubator, that are already here. Johnson and Shaening-Pokrasso envision something bigger, with more surrounding amenities.

Matt Brown, the city’s new economic development director, said in an interview after the meeting that he knew of multiple parties interested in creating a new co-working space in Santa Fe, fielding one inquiry the day before.

Still, despite the contents of their report, Shaening-Pokrasso and Johnson said they weren’t convinced co-working space is something Santa Fe needs right now.

“We’ve done the research, but we’ve just scratched the surface,” Shaening-Pokrasso said. “Co-working is something that achieves a goal, but we’re still figuring it out.

“I don’t know if co-working is what Santa Fe needs right now, but it’s going to happen,” he continued. “How it happens and how we do it as a community and support it with infrastructure around it, with all the elements of an ecosystem … in place has to be decided.”

Those elements include high-speed Wi-Fi, a variety of work spaces within the co-working space, including desks and couches, conference rooms, copy machines, mail and shipping services, event space and 24-hour access. Whatever the location, they say it “must” be in a developing area of density within walking distance of restaurants, retailers and, ideally, close to affordable housing, they wrote.

Their report contemplates a location for a co-working space. It says the Railyard District is a potentially great location. “However, the Railyard suffers from a lack of cohesiveness in terms of its services. There’s no quality coffee shop or quick lunch places,” their report states. The vacant spaces in the Railyard District also don’t scream “vibrancy,” they say.

Downtown is geared too much toward tourists, they say, and the Siler Street area around Meow Wolf is in the early stages of development and lacks existing amenities within easy walking distance.

Regarding coffee shops, at Wednesday’s meeting they extolled the virtues of Iconik Coffee Roasters on Lena Street, which Shaening-Pokrasso said at times looks as much like a co-working space as a coffee shop.

“We take meetings at Iconik,” he said. “That’s where collisions take place.”

While they make no recommendations regarding location, they say a site needs to be a place that has the necessary amenities and fosters collaboration.

Shaening-Pokrasso described such a place as being a “mecca” for creativity and innovation, and pointed to the American Tobacco Campus, a redevelopment of a former tobacco manufacturing district in Durham, N.C., as a good example.

“That’s where we as a city ought to be looking,” he said.

At the same meeting, committee chairman and City Councilor Mike Harris gave an update on the Santa Fe University of Arts and Design, which recently announced it plans to close the school, located on city-owned property, after the upcoming school year. Harris suggested that locating such a campus there, to include housing and other amenities, was one of several options that could be considered.

Gaining an edge

Creating a suitable co-working space around an entrepreneurial ecosystem was just part of Johnson and Shaening-Pokrasso’s report. Bringing in outside talent – both permanent and temporary – is another.

They suggest creating an Entrepreneur In Residence program to provide mentorship and guidance to young business people.

“The EIR will be expected to mentor local startups and produce content for Project Agora, while still leaving him/her time to work on their own startup,” they wrote in their report. The hope and intent is to expose the EIR to Santa Fe, and consider locating a business here. Short of that, their experience here could “make them vocal fans of the glory of New Mexico.”

That’s what happened with Johnson, a native of Buffalo, N.Y., who studied philosophy at Stanford.

He made a name for himself in the Silicon Valley as CEO of Zite, a personalized news app later sold to CNN. Prior to that, he was product manager at companies like Bing, Powerset and SideStep.

Backed with $8 million in venture capital investment, Johnson in 2014 co-founded Descartes Labs, a company that uses artificial intelligence and satellite images taken over a period of time to identify and analyze changes on the Earth’s surface, and located an office in Los Alamos. It was easier to move the company there rather than move the families of the recruited workforce, some of which was made up of expatriates of Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Johnson says when he first came to New Mexico, he expected to stay six months. But he fell in love with the place. Now, the company is headquartered here, and two-thirds of the company’s 40 employees work out of an office now located in Santa Fe. The rest work in offices in San Francisco and New York City.

Johnson says he has been successful recruiting employees to Santa Fe, attracting people who don’t care for the hustle and bustle of the big city and the high cost of living, and enjoy nature and the slower pace of life that can be found in northern New Mexico.

“Not everybody wants to live in San Francisco or New York,” he said in an interview. “Lifestyle is also important to them, and they like hiking, and they like kayaking. What’s cool about Descartes Labs is we can find people who would have moved to San Francisco or New York City, because that’s where the jobs are, but that’s not where their heart is. Their heart brings them here.”

Shaening-Pokrasso grew up in Santa Fe and successfully applied his digital media skills in the San Francisco scene – working with such tech companies as Adobe, AOL and Google – before deciding to come back, he says, to get “closer to nature” and “more deeply involved with the community” where he was raised. His company, 12FPS, now serves the growing film and digital media industry in the state.

“The ‘normal’ place for an artificial intelligence company and a media agency would be in San Francisco,” they write in their report. “We were both drawn to Santa Fe, N.M., to grow our companies in a different kind of ecosystem. Here we have a close community, deep history, the mountains, the sky and the escape from the hectic city life. Ultimately, this can and should be Santa Fe’s competitive edge.”

They reason in their report that it will take time to develop a skilled workforce in Santa Fe and it’s not something the city has much control over. But a temporary solution is to work to attract skilled workers to Santa Fe.

To do that, they urge the city to continue efforts to “grow Santa Fe young” by making the city appealing to a younger demographic. That means initiatives to stimulate nightlife and create more affordable housing options are important.

Maximizing value

The Agora Project presentation was generally well received by the Economic Development committee, though one concern was that the city might be putting the cart before the horse by pursuing the plan without the infrastructure in place.

Chairman Harris, though, was impressed enough to say that the report “shouldn’t be left on the shelf,” and asked Economic Development Director Brown to follow up.

In an interview after the meeting, Brown said the report would be shared with interested parties seeking to start up a co-working space in Santa Fe.

It will also be blended into the city’s overall economic development strategy.

“As we build out a comprehensive economic development strategy, the information will be integrated into that strategy so we can keep the initiative moving down the track,” he said. “In a simple way, it’s really project management. You have a list of objectives, and you move down that list and execute each one, then you move on to the next one.”

Asked what he liked about the report, Brown said he appreciated the systemic view the duo took.

“A co-working space can’t work in isolation. It thrives because it’s part of an ecosystem. It’s about people using the space to build a vibrant set of relationships,” he said.

He also saw value in the EIR program, saying the wisdom that comes from expertise and experience is invaluable.

The authors of the report say that their hope is for Project Agora to broker conversations between different groups in town.

“When a new initiative is started, we hope that they’ll start off by talking to the leadership of Project Agora and that the conversation will be collaborative, with the intention of finding the best way for that individual or group to be present in the community,” they wrote. “We believe that Project Agora is a logical central point to maximize the value of local initiatives.”