Downtown’s Innovate ABQ location bustling with activity

Innovate ABQ’s new president and executive director, John Freisinger, is snuggled into a small working space on the far east end of Albuquerque’s new innovation hub Downtown.

It’s cramped and devoid of office amenities, save for a table, some chairs and internet access.

But it’s brightly lit, with sunshine streaming in from full-wall windows that overlook the corner of Central and Broadway, now the heart and soul of Albuquerque’s emerging innovation district.

It’s temporary digs for Freisinger, who will soon move into a spacious, second-floor office at the entrance to the old First Baptist Church sanctuary and office tower, which rests smack on the southeast corner of the seven-acre church property, which the University of New Mexico purchased in 2014. Design work is just beginning on that 71,000-square-foot structure, marking the second phase of development for the high-tech research and development site UNM is building with public and private partners into a hub for entrepreneurship and startup innovation.

The first phase concluded last summer, when UNM opened its $35 million, six-story Lobo Rainforest building. That now houses UNM’s Innovation Academy, startup companies, and tech-transfer teams from UNM and three of the state’s national laboratories.

The inauguration of Central New Mexico Community College’s FUSE Makerspace followed in October, after CNM remodeled the old 13,000-square-foot Noonday Ministries soup kitchen into a modern community facility. That sits kitty-corner to the Lobo Rainforest building on the southwest side.

Now, the Innovate ABQ board has its sights set squarely on the old church sanctuary and office complex, across a small courtyard separating it from the Lobo Rainforest building. That structure is actually three buildings connected by walkways and built in phases over 70 years, Freisinger said.

That includes the sanctuary’s two-story chapel and office areas, a five-story tower behind it that’s filled with offices on every floor plus an old elevator, and a two-story west wing that housed the church’s parochial school.

“We’re entering the design phase now for the tower and church,” Freisinger said, while sipping coffee from the Lobo Rainforest’s newly opened “Press Room” cafe, just north of the church building. “We’re looking at how to bring it all into code, calculating the true cost of remediation, and how to upgrade everything into a modern facility while paying respect to the historic nature of the building.”

Remediation and remodeling will begin first in the sanctuary and office tower, which may cost between $7 and $9 million, Freisinger said.

“It will take 60 to 70 days to finish the design phase on those two sections, and then we’ll proceed to remediation work, such as removing asbestos ceiling tiles and lead paint,” Freisinger said. “It’s nothing too hazardous, but we have to address those issues first.”

The sanctuary will become the main community gateway into Innovate ABQ. Its front doors are on Central, leading visitors into a huge welcoming area with balconies that look down from the upper floor. Immediately to the right is the two-story chapel, also lined with balconies that overlook an open seating area and raised pulpit below.

“The church sanctuary will make a fantastic community gathering space,” Freisinger said. “It’s very reconfigurable and can accommodate all kinds of events. It’s probably a 400-person space, something between a high school gym and a hotel ballroom.”

The entire tower building will be converted into offices for economic development organizations, entrepreneurial support programs, community groups and incubator spaces for startups. The elevator will be repaired and put back into service, Freisinger said.

Many prospective tenants are lining up to occupy that building, which will likely open simultaneously with the church sanctuary late next year.

“We see those two buildings opening up by fall 2019,” Freisinger said. “We’ve identified about 95 percent of the capital needed for renovation. We’re paying for the design phase now out of Innovate ABQ’s operational budget while we wait for final notification on other funding for money to start flowing in.”

That includes a $1 million federal grant approved last fall by the U.S. Commerce Department’s Economic Development Administration, plus matching funds from private sources. Grants and loans are also in the pipeline from a variety of other public and private sources, Freisinger said.

West-wing development will take more time to begin, because the Innovate ABQ board is still working with prospective tenants to fully define how the space will be used. It will likely include wet and dry research labs for biomedical and other technology development, with offices for startup companies and some type of food court or restaurant.

Plans are also underway to develop the northwest corner of the Innovate ABQ site. The board is considering a two- or four-story building there to house information technology businesses focused on things like artificial intelligence, augmented reality, cybersecurity and more, Freisinger said.

Meanwhile, the Lobo Rainforest building is buzzing with activity as investors and entrepreneurs constantly shuffle through to meet and mingle with researchers, scientists and tech-transfer professionals, said Lisa Kuuttila, head of the Science and Technology Corp., UNM’s tech transfer office.

About 900 students are enrolled in UNM’s Innovation Academy, which holds classes on the ground floor and works with students seeking to market new products and services.

“We have 36 student companies up and running and generating revenue,” said Academy Director Rob DelCampo. “Many more are in different stages of development.”

About 200 students live in dorms on the building’s five upper floors. All 155 two-bedroom apartments are expected to fill to capacity when the fall semester starts in August.

Community interest and support are building, Freisinger said.

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