Not many economic development entities can say their offices are in a TreeHouse, but I can.
My office is surrounded by more than 80 innovative, aspiring entrepreneurs who are working hard to turn their ideas into viable, thriving companies. I bump into these individuals routinely in the hallway or breakroom, and see them more than I see many of my fellow city colleagues, even though I work as the Director of Economic Development and Tourism for the Town of Addison. I often hear about the business challenges they face, and the solutions they are developing to resolve these challenges. My office is literally where government serendipitously collides with private business.
But this isn’t an experiment. It’s an endeavor that made sense to our economic development efforts.
Just a little over a year ago, the Town of Addison, in partnership with the Dallas Entrepreneur Center (DEC), launched the Addison TreeHouse, and the Town’s Economic Development and Tourism Department co-located within the space. What makes this arrangement unique is that there aren’t many local governments that will co-locate offices within such an environment. But this isn’t an experiment. It’s an endeavor that made sense to our economic development efforts.
Ask any economic developer, and they will say that economic development is about improving the quality of life for its residents by supporting programs and projects that grow the local economy. More jobs, more private capital investments, a higher-skilled workforce, and more business activity help generate more tax revenue for local governments to support programs and projects that improve a community’s quality of life. More than 2,500 economic development entities throughout the country are vying to entice that large corporate company to relocate in their backyard, focusing on keeping existing companies in place, or reinventing aging spaces with new uses. Unfortunately, many economic development entities shy away from getting too deep in supporting startups because of the risk involved. In Addison, however, the community was developed on thinking innovatively and taking risks.
When the Addison Economic Development Department was launched in 2011, our primary focus was the same as every community, and we began having tremendous success quickly. Our office vacancy rates in our 10-million-square-feet office went down from more than 24 percent to an existing low of 13 percent. Our largest retail shopping center went from a stagnant, under-producing center to one of the most thriving in the entire region today, and our existing companies began to extend their leases and grow.
We knew that partnering with the TreeHouse would help ensure our competitiveness in the region, lubricate our economic engine, and coalesce Addison’s ripe entrepreneurial ecosystem.
Knowing that all successful businesses today started as an idea, it made sense to support the startup community. We also knew that partnering with the TreeHouse would help ensure our competitiveness in the region, lubricate our economic engine, and coalesce Addison’s ripe entrepreneurial ecosystem. Our major challenge, however, was that we had a small department (only two people at the time), and we had to continue focusing on our regular duties.
Given the challenge, we decided to take inventory of the resources in our region to see how we could leverage the support of expert organizations that had the essential ingredients to launch a successful co-working incubator space. Enter the DEC. Developing a relationship with them gave us an opportunity to work smarter; not harder.
One of our first challenges in launching the TreeHouse was alleviating fears. Elected officials saw this project as a tremendous risk that involved a major financial commitment. As responsible fiduciary custodial servants of public funds, it took them a while to warm up to the idea. The prevailing thought that soon surfaced was that this was another way of investing in our future. It was a way of diversifying our long-term investments in the community, which would generate a long-term return. When the time came for our city council to make a final vote on supporting the TreeHouse, it was unanimous.
The Town of Addison took a risk, and we soon leased approximately a 15,000-square-foot space, hired an architect and a general contractor, and launched the Addison TreeHouse.
Within a year of its opening, the TreeHouse has helped provide support to more than 100 startups and hosted more than 200 events that have brought in more than 6,000 visitors. Corporate mentors have provided over 300 hours of whiteboard sessions. Collide Village Accelerator also launched within the TreeHouse and is currently going through its second group of cohorts. In December, Collide Village Accelerator will launch eight new businesses at its pitch day, which is similar to Shark Tank. The energy that has been created in just one year has been contagious.
As a department, we continue to focus on all aspects of economic development, plus work closely with our partner, the DEC, which manages the space with programs for the startup community and curates the TreeHouse with startups. Our role is to provide additional support for the DEC and its startups, work on eliminating barriers, and get startups connected with existing business networks.
In addition to the DEC, our relationship extends to the North Texas Small Business Development Center, which maintains an office at the TreeHouse. We also have a partnership with Baylor University’s Accelerated Ventures Program, where students who graduate from the Waco program and have a startup are provided free workspace if they relocate to Addison. The TreeHouse has become a one-stop shop for entrepreneurs from business ideation to launch to incubation.
Having an office at the Addison Treehouse gives us an opportunity to understand the challenges and opportunities of businesses on a daily basis.
From an economic development standpoint, the opportunities created by the TreeHouse go beyond growing our own businesses. It helps further our efforts by providing a pool of innovations for our larger, existing companies. It also provides a community element to attract talent to the area by providing a resource center for young, creative individuals who want to explore the possibilities of turning an idea into a business.
Governments are often blamed for not understanding how businesses are run; so for my department, it gives us an opportunity to understand the challenges and opportunities of businesses on a daily basis. Having this understanding obviously helps us do a better job. This symbiotic interaction goes a lot further than any training course and just like entrepreneurs, it forces us to be creative and resourceful.
In 2015, NerdWallet chose Addison as the No. 1 place in the entire state of Texas to start a business, and in 2014, Google presented the community with its e-City Award for Texas. Thanks to the support by the community, we have helped pave the road for Addison, and demonstrated that local government can be innovative. All it takes is a little bit of risk.
For a daily dose of what’s new and next in Dallas-Fort Worth innovation, subscribe to our Dallas Innovates e-newsletter.