Black River Innovation Campus

Springfield, VT

Contact Name
Matt Dunne
Project Dates
January 2017 - Present
Tags
Technology, Placemaking/placekeeping, Entrepreneurship, Downtown preservation/main streets, Workforce Development
The Black River Innovation Campus is an innovation campus with programming powered by 10 gigabit speed broadband in Springfield, VT. BRIC was launched to catalyze Springfield's transformation to a digital economy. Leveraging the fastest internet speeds in the country (10 gigabit), BRIC's aim is to educate and train people in digital skills, employ them in digital economy jobs, and empower them to launch the startups that will continue to drive Springfield's digital economy.
Project Goals
What were the specific goals of this creative economy project? Describe the community development challenge or opportunity that your project was designed to address:
We conceived of the Black River Innovation Campus (BRIC) as a strategy for reinventing Springfield as the innovation center it once was by catalyzing its transformation to a digital economy. BRIC will leverage Springfield’s fastest internet speeds in the country (10 gigabit) to educate and train people in digital skills, employ them in digital economy jobs, and empower them to launch the startups that will continue to drive Springfield’s digital economy.

BRIC has three areas of focus:
1. To employ digital workers in a state of the art digital live/work space;
2. To develop an entrepreneurship center that will drive the creation of new technology businesses; and
3. To work with the Springfield School District and other local organizations to implement a full-spectrum of computer science, robotics, and computational thinking programs for children, and to concurrently provide digital training to adults.
If the goals change over time, please describe how:
Our core goals haven’t changed, but like any new venture, we are adapting as the project progresses. We’ve engaged Dartmouth College and Vermont Public Television to collaborate on theater space and are working to leverage 10 gigabit connectivity through VTel to provide an innovation space for new forms of film and multi-media. We know that the 10 gigabit connectivity will be very attractive for organizations and individuals working in the film industry because it makes it possible to move 4k film, edit remotely, and move massive files in real time. The fastest in the nation internet connectivity also facilitates collaboration between virtual reality and augmented reality as well as film collaboration. We continue to seek out partners that would leverage that resource and join BRIC to create jobs and opportunities in Springfield.
Who was involved in this project and what did they do? (be sure to include the partners from outside of the creative sector and how local voices were included):
BRIC is a collaboration between local partners and funders from local, statewide, and national organizations. The Springfield Regional Development Corporation (SRDC) has led local organizing and helped to create the core organizational infrastructure. BRIC has received funding and support from the Kauffman Foundation, the Siegel Family Endowment, the Vermont Community Foundation, the Vermont Women’s Fund, the McClure Foundation, the Byrne Foundation, the Windham Foundation, and Vermont Telephone Company.
Other members of the entrepreneurial ecosystem, including the Vermont Center for Emerging Technology (VCET), the Vermont Technology Council, and the Dartmouth Entrepreneurial Network have been partners, as have the local school system and Purpose Lab. BRIC’s Board is comprised of a majority of local people, including the entire executive committee, which boasts retired business executives, the director of the chamber of commerce, and the Founder of Black River Produce. Governor Phil Scott has been a vocal supporter and spoke at BRIC’s kickoff event. The State of Vermont has also provided resources.
What projects or places, if any, inspired your approach to this creative economy project?
We were inspired by the work in White River Junction over the last 20 years, where community stakeholders took a similarly distressed railroad town and through collaborative efforts created a vibrant community with loft apartments, diverse restaurants, and more. My experiences in the data center communities on behalf of Google also exposed me to places in similar post-industrial positions and the work they did to reinvent themselves.
Project Specifics
Please list the steps taken to implement the project:
We began in January 2017 by meeting with stakeholders to align on a vision for what could be possible in Springfield. Together, we wrote a plan, recruited a board of directors, reached out to Dartmouth College to gauge their interest in partnering on a project like this, identified development partners, and raised funds (national, local, public, and private – even from other non-profits). We publicly launched the project in the fall of 2018.
If the project steps changed over time, please describe how:
A project like this is never linear. In our case, we began securing resources even before we completed building out the board of directors. Once the board was in place, we pursued additional resources. We have also been open minded about BRIC’s physical space. For example, we hoped the ideal location would come through earlier, but we worked to secure other locations for phase one of the project while the larger real estate deal comes together.
Obstacles
What were your major obstacles for the completion of the project?
Obstacles include the length of time it has taken to put the real estate pieces together and raising money, including getting national foundations to come on board fully to secure the match for federal funds. This project is necessarily very multi-faceted, so managing the logistics and coordinating all of the moving parts has taken significant time.
Who or what was instrumental in overcoming these obstacles?
Thankfully, BRIC is supported by a team of great local partners and backed by a committed community. Funders willing to make a leap and try something different have helped us overcome many challenges. The fact that all stakeholders have been willing to understand that we have to do multiple things at once to become successful has also been a key factor to our continued momentum.
What top three suggestions would you give to others attempting a similar project?
1. Quietly secure enough funding before going public so you can go forward with confidence
2. Create a narrative with a compelling group of supporters before approaching funders (local engagement)
3. Encourage funders to commit resources contingent on matching funds rather than raising lower amounts
Project Impact
How has this project strategically connected arts and cultural activities to social, economic, and cultural issues in your community? What is different in your community as a result of this project?
BRIC is based on the idea that to be successful, we have to create an ecosystem, not simply create jobs. This is part of why we are excited about the possibility for renovating the theater in the Park Street School. We know that the resilient jobs of the future will be buttressed by a vibrant downtown. We often joke about the “three Bs”: broadband, blues, and beer. The fact is – and research has shown – talent will leave if the cultural and livability issues are not addressed with a similar focus as are the traditional economic development and job creation activities. We cannot train workers in digital skills and expect them to stay if the community isn’t also offering diverse restaurants, cultural activities, and quality of life that makes Springfield as or more appealing than other places with competitive job opportunities. Thankfully, Springfield has a longstanding reputation for interesting cultural offerings and superior livability, and our project will continue to seek out ways to augment those assets for the benefit of all stakeholders.
Why do you consider the project successful, as related to your project goals above?
We consider our fundraising to date a great indicator of success, particularly at this early point in the project. We have raised $1.724 million and have received a federal contract to help bring the model to other communities across the country. Furthermore, people are rallying around BRIC and the innovation hub model – there’s a buzz. A bistro has opened downtown, demonstrating that local entrepreneurs are willing to take a risk on the fact that this community is poised for new activity and energy. There’s clear momentum: we have heard from 100+ rural communities across the country interested in learning about the innovation hub model and replicating it in their own small towns.
How did you measure this success or progress?
In December 2018 we were awarded a $724,000 federal grant through the competitive Rural Innovation Strategies i6 Challenge grant program.
Please describe any unexpected impacts:
Since this project launched, we’ve been pleased to learn about a new bistro opening in downtown Springfield, as noted above. And as we’ve done outreach in the community and to stakeholders no longer living in Springfield but still invested in it, we’ve met a group of Springfield “alumni” that have gone on to work at the highest levels of media, technology, and other industries. The ex-pat network is extensive and impressive – and engaged in BRIC and our vision for reinventing Springfield. We have also been interested to learn about people already leveraging the 10 gigabit internet connectivity for various employment and personal interests, including one successful technologist we learned of who has bought real estate and created an impressive ‘hacker house.’