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Seeds grow into roots at Innovate ABQ

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Crowds of business and innovation supporters fill The Epicenter@Innovate ABQ for the ribbon-cutting ceremony at the downtown near Central and Broadway in April. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The seeds of entrepreneurial innovation are sprouting in Albuquerque, thanks to broad community involvement in building a new, homegrown foundation for economic development.

That was the central message Monday at the University of New Mexico’s second economic development summit, which attracted about 200 businesspeople, investors, economic development professionals, national laboratory representatives and more.

The summit, dubbed “Rainforest II,” analyzed progress in creating an innovation district in the heart of Albuquerque since UNM’s last conference in fall 2012. At that first event, UNM introduced a novel “Rainforest” development concept through which local communities work together to encourage entrepreneurial innovation and build a platform for local innovators to share ideas and support one another in new business endeavors.

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Innovate ABQ, which aims to turn the seven-acre Baptist Church site at Central and Broadway Downtown into a bustling zone for research and development, grew out of that first summit. Since then, the initiative has progressed from concept to concrete project with nearly $8 million in public and private funding, UNM President Bob Frank said.

“We’ve achieved an incredible amount since that first conference,” Frank said. “Now we want to reflect on those achievements and consider our next steps for moving forward.”

UNM bought the Baptist Church property last year with financial support from the city, county, nonprofit organizations and private entities such as Nusenda Credit Union. And this year, the university turned over Innovate ABQ’s management to a community-based board of directors.

In July, the board chose a three-member development team to create proposals to begin building out the Baptist Church site. That team — which includes Signet Development of Ohio and New Mexico’s Goodman Realty Group and Decker/Perich/Sabatini — will present its development outline in the next few days, UNM Chief Economic Development Officer Lisa Kuuttila said.

“We’re expecting the first draft this week,” Kuuttila said. “It will outline initial steps for the property, including some renovation of existing buildings and some new construction. Realistically, we can expect to break ground by early next year.”

The design will aim to entice people into the district, Innovate ABQ board member Jessica Eaves Mathews said.

“We want it to be a dynamic hub for economic development where people live, work and play,” Mathews said.

Apart from offices, it could include an events center, and possibly a tap room and a cafe for programs and social activities.

The board is also preparing to hire its first CEO, and is now sifting through applications, Mathews said.

Greg Horowitt, co-author of “The Rainforest: The Secret to Building the Next Silicon Valley,” said UNM and its community partners laid the initial seeds for development at the first summit in 2012.

“Those seeds are now beginning to grow,” Horowitt said. “It’s a living, evolving process.”

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