Photo by Danja Vasiliev on Flickr.
DC officials are trying hard to woo technology companies to DC, and one strategy to do that is to establish a place in the city with a critical mass of tech jobs. But the location officials say they are focusing on keeps moving.
Before 2002, DC offered a tax break to high tech companies, as long as they located in one of multiple “high tech development zones.” Those encompassed the majority of land in the city, but excluded a lot of DC west of Rock Creek Park, some lower-density neighborhoods along the Maryland border in the north and northeast, and a few other areas.
In 2012, Mayor Gray pushed for legislation that removed these boundaries and let tech companies anywhere in the city get the tax breaks. Around the same time, Gray announced plans to turn St. Elizabeths East Campus into an Innovation Hub that would “stimulate formation of a technology cluster.” The administration reached out to many universities and companies like Microsoft about establishing a significant presence there.
Then, in 2013, the administration invested $380,000 in a new coworking and incubator space, 1776, at 15th and M Street NW. Many small new businesses will definitely want to locate downtown even if and when there is a thriving tech center at St. E’s, and St. Elizabeths is far from ready to be a center of tech jobs.
Left: Former “high tech development zones.” Image from Google Maps with data from GeoCommons. Right: Locations of St. Elizabeths, 1776, and the Digital DC Tech Corridor. Image from Google Maps.
But last month, the Gray administration announced a new initiative, the Digital DC Tech Corridor, which runs along 7th Street and Georgia Avenue from New York Avenue downtown to Kansas Avenue in Petworth.
A new Digital DC Tech Fund offered venture funding to startups, so long as they locate in this corridor. This is the opposite of the earlier move to eliminate the requirement that tech companies locate within a “tech zone” to qualify for incentives. Georgia Avenue is also a part of the city that could benefit from new jobs and economic growth, but it seemed odd to have a fund that specifically targets one area that’s totally different from the other two.
Tech startups in 1776 will not qualify for these grants. Neither will those in the Innovation Hub at St Elizabeth’s, nor those at private tech startup hubs like The Hive in Anacostia or Canvas in Dupont Circle. District Cap Table pointed out how the new tech corridor misses the many existing incubator and coworking spaces:
Finally, earlier this week and just before the Democratic Primary where the mayor is struggling to win renomination, he announced plans to build a $300 million hospital at St Elizabeths East Campus. This is a completely new idea that’s nowhere in the 5-Year Economic Development Plan for St Elizabeths East, and doesn’t seem that compatible with the walkable tech hub previous plans envision.
This isn’t to say the city has to pick just one and only one spot within the entire District for tech jobs and only focus on that. There will be different kinds of tech companies that might want different sizes of office space, want to be near other companies of a certain type, and have workers who live in different parts of the city.
But all of these changes — to remove a specific zone for incentives and then add one, to announce one tech hub, then create another, and change plans — is creating whiplash. The city can only create and un-create so many tech hubs before tech policy looks more like a political football than a serious strategy to diversify our tax base beyond the federal government.