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Build A Great City

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The adventure took me to Lake Worth last week.

Thanks to the wonderful Danika Dahl ( and my friend Greg Rice, I had the opportunity to bring some books and some thoughts to Lake Worth last week.

We had a great discussion about cities, downtowns, economic development and local politics with an emphasis on Lake Worth’s enormous potential. I began by emphasizing that they not me were the experts when it came to Lake Worth. While I have visited the city innumerable times and enjoy the downtown, its restaurants, festivals and beachfront casino and pier, I don’t live and breathe the community like people who live and work there do. But I do think there are some universal truths and principles for community building that can work anywhere if they are tailored to local sensibilities. But when it comes down to it, citizens are responsible for creating the identity, look and feel of their city. And each city should strive to have its own personality and style.

Below are the notes I took with me which framed the conversation. I thought I would share. It was a great night, with lots of intelligent discussion, some super ideas and a lot of inspiration. In an age of social media and technology it’s reassuring to see how powerful it is for people to gather and talk as neighbors with a shared passion for creating a great city. Thanks Danika and Greg for the opportunity. Local blogger Wes Blackman–a  really terrific urbanist himself– did a three part series on the evening that I am very appreciative of. You can find Wes’ blog at

Forge a Vision–

  • Involve as many stakeholders as possible.
  • Elected officials and property owners must be bought in
  • Begin to Implement immediately; prioritize and get going. If you fail to act, the vision fades and you lose the trust of those who volunteer and care.
  • Celebrate and market the small victories; build momentum because success breeds success.
  • City Budgets should reflect the citizens vision.
  • Stick to the vision: it takes time. Stare down the inevitable resistance and have patience and faith.
  • Remember that visions are living and breathing documents, principles should be stuck to, but good visions grow and are flexible to meet changing times.

Visioning tips:

Each city is different. Build on your strengths and assets. Inspiration can come from local history, local art, local architecture and design, but also embrace new ideas and changing times.

Be mindful of your strengths weaknesses, opportunities and threats. Guard against complacency. Don’t let failures or missteps bog you down, learn and move on. Similarly don’t let success make you smug or lazy.

When elections come, pin down candidates on their views of the adopted vision. Do they see themselves as being responsible to making it happen or are they running to upend the vision?

Require participants to put your city first, ahead of personal agendas, petty feuds and egos. Look for servant leaders and avoid those who think they are the smartest people in the room, regardless of the room they are in.

Remind people immediately when they stray…ignoring problems allows them to fester and grow. Insist that the citizen’s vision be honored. Be willing to fight for it—and count on having to do so.


Brand your street/downtown/city

What is your city’s style, what’s its promise, what’s its vibe? Once you identify your brand identity: market, promote and relentlessly work to bring people downtown.

Embrace change, but make sure change respects your city and its history. You can’t stop change, but you can shape it. The best visions and brands embrace the past, the present and the future.

Establish a culture of “how may I help you” versus “watch me stop you”. This does not mean compromising standards but it does mean being business friendly and making an effort to land deals and make things happen. Developers and investors don’t mind tough standards but they do require a fair, predictable and timely process.

A vision begins getting old the moment it’s adopted. Every day it lingers its damaged, every day you don’t talk about it people will fail to understand it. A vision is a flame. It needs to be tended to and you need to constantly educate the community of its importance and rationale. A vision is your best economic development tool, it’s what you sell.

Events are important. They bring people to your city. They allow for people to meet, talk and gather.

Public spaces and placemaking are critical. But they must be safe and active while also allowing for quiet enjoyment.

Culture is important too.–the arts are critical. Residents seek them out and so do visitors and companies.

Make sure elected officials are champions of the vision. They need to see themselves as stewards with a responsibility to make the vision a reality and to protect the vision.

If there is no vision or if the vision is shoved off to the sidelines personal agendas will take over, the vacuum will be filled with politics.

You need a team. The right people on the bus in the right seats. And those people need to be able to work together well. That doesn’t mean they will always agree but it means that they are able to overcome differences, trust each other and feel passionate about the vision and mission. Once a decision is made move on; there will be times you agree and times when you disagree.

Positioning is critical. Where does your city fit in the local and regional landscape? Delray did not want to become Boca—as successful as Boca is. Boynton should not be Delray. But city’s also have to know what is possible. Boynton is pursuing an identity as a city friendly to millennials—with workforce housing, breweries, an arts scene and inexpensive space for new companies. It’s a solid strategy/position because it counters Delray which has become expensive and a place where it is difficult to win approvals.

A good place to start

SWOT Analysis-

  • An old fashioned tool, but a good place to begin.
  • Strengths—What are the best things about Lake Worth?
  • My take: Outsiders view…
  1. A whole lot of amenities for a small city. A waterfront park, a real downtown, great history, two main streets, human scale, charming cottages, relatively affordable, a waterfront golf course, a beautiful ocean front casino, a great pier, some great restaurants, walkable. Engaged community, abundance of creatives. Central location in county, near airport and other cities. Diverse and tolerant.
  • Weaknesses


  • My take:
  • Crime, vagrancy, lack of residential density to support local businesses and restaurants, lack of industry, derelict properties, sense that Lake Worth has been on the brink for a long time but never quite gets there, vacancies downtown. Financial struggles, aging infrastructure.
  • Opportunities


  • My take:
  • Great wealth east of the bridge that could be attracted to shop and dine downtown, a great “old Florida, laid back unpretentious downtown” that has tremendous appeal, historic buildings ripe for adaptive re-use, add downtown housing and small office, co-working, incubation, emphasis on artists, ability to attract people to close-in neighborhoods through some bold program that would clean up and stabilize neighborhoods and grow tax base.
  • Threats


  • My Take
  • Politics that might resist change or risk taking, infrastructure issues.

All in all, a terrific night…next week my trip to Naples 5th Avenue and the power of collaboration.




Moments…Define Leaders

Leaders not only seize the day, they seize the moments.

Leaders not only seize the day, they seize the important moments.

There are so many nuances to leadership that I’m not sure if it’s possible to fully grasp even a fraction of what there is to know about the subject.

But one thing effective leaders seem to grasp is the power of moments.

The best leaders seem to know when to act.

The best leaders seem to know when to compromise.

The best leaders seem to know when it’s the  best time to seize opportunity.

And the best leaders seem to know the precise moment to frame an issue and make a lasting impression.

We have seen it on a national level during moments of crisis when our country seems ready to learn and ready to move.

Today, is just such a moment and I’m hopeful that Washington can overcome partisanship and politics and do something positive in the wake of the tragedy in Orlando. A moment was missed after Newtown, Connecticut and many moments since then. Each time a moment is missed, people lose faith in their leaders.

On a local level, mayors and city council members also are given moments to seize on issues of far less gravity than what occurred in Orlando a few weeks back. But they are moments nonetheless and they aren’t leaders if they don’t recognize them and do something positive with them.

Often they come in the wake of pitched battles, which can be very personal when waged on a local level because we are often debating our neighbors and friends on sensitive issues.

In Delray, the recent iPic showdown provided a moment and so does the immediate battle over special events in Delray and the hiring of a city attorney.

The iPic moment was missed. There was an opportunity  to acknowledge and address the angst over change and development but also to embrace the opportunity to welcome a new company, jobs, investment and the cleaning up of a derelict property. Sadly, it was missed but there’s still a chance to grab an opportunity.

While certain approvals have been granted, it has been reported that a developer agreement that would actually enable the project to proceed remains elusive. Who is helping to make that happen? That’s a moment to be seized and a chance to make a project better by working together. Because once a legislative decision is made, it’s incumbent to make the most of it. Even if you– especially if you– as an individual elected official voted against something. Because unless it’s immoral, dangerous, illegal, discriminatory or unethical– once a decision is made  you are duty bound to accept it if we are to be a society that respects the decisions made by governing bodies. And if we don’t, then those decisions will never be accepted and we will never be able to rely on a governmental action.

As for special events, the city commission made a point. Actually, several: quality is better than quantity, where possible events should be contained and events come with a cost. The event producers get it and they should be credited with stepping up and redesigning and rethinking many long time events. This is the moment where you declare victory, thank people for compromising, credit them for proposing solutions and move on. There are bigger problems to deal with than Garlic Fest, which many would argue does not even constitute a problem.

Like heroin.

I attended a drug task force meeting last week led by the impressive Suzanne Spencer.

It was an extraordinary experience. In the room, were all the major front line players–treatment providers, business leaders, cops, firefighters, code enforcement personnel, hospital officials and legislative aides.

Folks, we are in the midst of a humanitarian crisis. People are dying and it’s not just kids it’s middle age people too. Opioid and heroin Abuse is rampant and scary. And it’s here in our community–and elsewhere too as evidenced by the presence of top-level officials from Boynton Beach and Pompano Beach.

While the stats are depressing and terrifying and the stories of exploitation and death horrifying it was heartening to see grassroots leaders working together.

Information and advice is being shared, people on the front lines seem to be cooperating and they appear to be working on the problem on all ends–prevention, treatment and everything in between. They are leaders seizing a moment.

They deserve our prayers, support, hearts, minds and resources. There are opportunities in crisis and the very best leaders recognize the moment and heed the call.

Thanks Terra, Tom and Bill


This post is a goodbye tribute and a thank you to a few extraordinary contributors.

Terra and Tom Spero and their two wonderful boys are moving to the  Raleigh, NC  area later this month. I will miss having them around and running into them all over town but I’m certain we will remain friends and in touch. They will enrich their new hometown and they will be missed around here.

Raleigh is a great city and a wonderful place to raise kids. I have a close childhood friend who lives there, a nephew who went to college and now law school there and many friends who have raved over the area’s economic development efforts and entrepreneurial scene. In fact, our Business Development Board took a contingent there a few years back and friends who went on the trip are still talking about what they saw and experienced. I can appreciate the lure.

But Terra loves Delray as well and seeing her go is hard for those of us who love her and Tom and appreciate their service over the years.

Terra has been on the board with me at Dare 2 Be Great and the Chamber of Commerce, gave me great ideas for my book, served on SPRAB with distinction and has helped market events, our downtown and our city. Her work has been great for Delray, she has rung cash registers all over town and that my friends is economic development. Events and tourism are a form of economic development and that we even have to have that discussion shows how far we have strayed from a proven formula. A formula that raised Delray from the dead.

Want proof? Take a gander at the city’s rising taxable values which lead the county (and leave other cities in the dust) and you’ll see the value. So unless we are exempt from the laws of  economics I think we can say we’ve done OK. Unless of course you think properties go up in value after they’ve been ruined.

But I digress.

Still, my larger point is we ought to do whatever we can to attract and retain families like the Spero’s. Great people. Entrepreneurs. Great parents. Volunteers. Contributors.

I first met Terra when she attended a Residents Academy class and I was on the commission. I was happy to see a young mom and business owner take an interest in her city. When I got to know her, I hoped one day she would serve on the commission. I don’t say that about too many people I meet. But I thought she was smart, committed, creative and had vision. I saw her as a leader and we need leaders. Now, more than ever.

It turned out I was right about Terra and her talent burned bright on many boards and projects. Terra promises to stay involved here and engaged in business as well. I hope so. But it’s important to say “thank you.”

And so we will.

A big thank you is also in order for Bill Branning who is stepping off our CRA due to term limits after 8 years of stellar service on that very important agency.

Luckily Bill is staying around and serving as the chair of Old School Square.

But he will be missed on the CRA. He has done a great job on an agency that has hit it out of the park.

Bill is dedicated, mature, level headed, scary smart, funny, kind and does his homework. He makes those he works with better and adds tremendous value because he’s prepared, in it for the right reasons and asks great questions. Just a great board member and a great guy.

There seems to be talk on the commission about changing the rules to favor residents of Delray and limit the participation of non-residents on city boards.

Sounds good right? But here’s the reality. Skin in the game can be defined in many ways. Sure living here is important. Very important. Paying taxes means something too.

But there’s more to the equation. Does the applicant have the requisite skillset and life experience to add value? Do they own and or operate a business in your city? Do they pay taxes? Invest here. Volunteer here. Give philanthropically to community causes and institutions.

When I hear about this possible policy change I think of Bill. He owns a business here. Owns property here. Volunteers here. Gives here. His heart is here and has been for a long time. But when he goes to sleep at night his head hits the pillow in Boca. But he’s more of a Delray guy than just about anyone I know. He is as committed to the betterment of this city as anyone has ever been.

I would hope any new policy would find room for a guy like him. Heck, we’d be lucky to find somebody who comes close.

Thanks Bill for your stellar service. You’ve made your town proud.




“We will not be defined by a hateful shooter. We will be defined by how we love each other.” Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer. ‪#‎PrayersforOrlando

Success: A formula

I agree.

I agree. Do you?

When communities can’t see past the next week they suffer.

When communities scratch every itch, react to every complaint and ignore what’s positive they degrade the spirit of the most important people in a city, the people who volunteer, serve, work hard, invest, dream and aspire. The people who build community.

When I speak to groups I am often asked what it takes for an elected official to succeed.

I hear how difficult the job is, how brutal  the politics can be and how complex today’s issues seem. It’s all true.

It’s a hard job.

Time consuming and at times very stressful.  And if you care about your neighbors it can be very hard to disagree with them or to say no.

But it’s not all vinegar and heartburn either.

 Public service can be a joy and immensely rewarding. And there’s nothing like local government. If you have a good idea on a Tuesday night and two colleagues agree well then… change can be made Wednesday morning. That’s the beauty of local government.

There’s also an opportunity to engage, connect and help people. And that’s powerful and very meaningful–unless of course you choose not to do any of those things.

And make no mistake, it’s a choice.

So I deeply respect and appreciate those who choose correctly and to be honest I have no use for those who don’t.

So while the job is complex and the issues difficult, the job can be made simple.

If you serve you can be certain that you won’t please everybody. That’s a guarantee. Even the “no brainer” issues will manage to set somebody off.

So the choice is clear: who do you choose to please?

Those who are engaged in activities that move your city forward or those who sit back and complain (usually about the doers)?

The choice should be easy. But you might be surprised how many politicos blow it and choose to kowtow to the squeaky wheels and disappoint, disparage and dismay those who get up every day and seek to make the community a better place.

That’s it in a nutshell.

If you want to succeed in local politics–I can’t speak for state or federal office–determine who is busy making a positive impact and do what you can to help them.

Those people are not hard to find. They serve on boards, mentor children, seek to heal those who are hurting, raise funds for good causes, work hard to advance ideas and create jobs. They aspire. Oh, how I love that word. It makes all the good in this world possible.  

Please those folks. Work hard to help them succeed. Praise and support their efforts.

As for the rest, well don’t go out of your way to anger them. (You wont have to, they wake up mad).

Listen to your critics, sometimes they have something to teach you and other times they are simply full of it.

But they do serve a purpose–they are usually wrong. Their batting average is terrible when measured against the doers in your city. Their predictions of doom and gloom rarely come true and their negativity usually doesn’t amount to much.  The worse thing you can do is empower them; that will deflate the contributors and you can kiss progress goodbye.

On the other hand, if you listen to those who aspire, who seek to do the impossible you’ll find that the word doesn’t exist.

Oh, you’ll trip a time or two, you may even get some stuff wrong but you’ll be someone whose service mattered. It’s guaranteed. Or you can squander the opportunity and fail.

It really is that simple.


Festivals Have Their Place


Garlic Fest has become a Delray tradition providing much needed funds to local non-profits and schools. Photo by VMA Studios courtesy from Garlic Festival website.

Garlic Fest has become a Delray tradition providing much needed funds to local non-profits and schools. Photo by VMA Studios courtesy from Garlic Festival website.

We know people who love the Delray Affair.

We know others who wait with baited breath for the Garlic Festival (pun intended). And we know people who love craft beer and spend extra to buy VIP tickets to support Old School Square and enjoy the latest suds from small purveyors— many of them local.

We also know others who avoid the Delray Affair, don’t get the whole garlic thing and have no interest in tasting anything named Swamp Ape.

Different strokes for different folks as they say.

But whether you like or loathe events—and a recent poll of Delray voters show that 83 percent of them support and/or attend downtown special events–there’s no doubt that festivals have played a large role in building Delray’s brand.

There’s also no argument that they can be disruptive and costly. But a smart look at the issue would not just focus on impacts but benefits as well. In the coming weeks, Delray Beach commissioners are expected to consider a new event policy and cost structure. While many (not all)  of the policy recommendations we’ve heard about seem to make sense, the cost structure attached to the policy threatens to kill the events. This would be a big mistake. In many cases, the cost of events would nearly triple, which would most likely drive them out of business. That would be tragic.

Special events are a form of economic development. They bring people to your urban core and they help to ring cash registers and fill restaurants—and not just on the day of the event. Many people will come back to Delray after having been exposed to the downtown at a festival.

They also attract tourists and day visitors and some of those tourists and visitors have ended up investing here. We know many residents who decided to live here in part because they enjoyed the events and the overall vibrancy of the city. Events are placemaking and creating a sense of place is critically important.

Festivals also serve as important fundraisers for key community non-profits and they help to build community too.

Delray Beach is very fortunate to have a downtown, a place to gather. Cities without downtowns feel different and many seek to create urban cores to generate that community feeling.

Old School Square was a brilliant civic idea because instead of bulldozing history past visionaries like Frances Bourque recognized the strategic importance of having a cultural center at the heart of our city’s redevelopment efforts. And make no mistake Old School Square was the catalyst. The outdoor space is ideal for events and the new park– approved by voters in 2005 to replace an ugly surface parking lot– should be designed to host events and every day activities.

The energy created by the restoration gave life to efforts to create a vibrant downtown which is at the heart of our success and our economic well-being. Other cities have a beach; very few have a downtown like Delray Beach.

If you are fortunate enough to live anywhere near the downtown you have seen your property values soar–usually viewed as a good thing. There’s a correlation between our downtown’s success and property values. It’s doubtful we would’ve seen any appreciation if downtown remain vacant, blighted and dangerous. But when you are a short golf cart ride away from over 100 great restaurants, shops and yes events you can bet that translates into value. It also translates into qualify of life.

So yes there is a strong need to preach quality over quantity. Some events are tired and need to go or at the very least need upgrading. But that’s a very different conversation than a wholesale “cull”.  Where possible disruption should be mitigated and costs are always a factor but chasing away events from our central gathering place would be a big mistake especially if many of those events are contained, don’t close roads and are enjoyed by many. We should also consider that many of the events raise needed funds for worthy community non-profits.

A few emails and complaints is not a reason to jettison a formula that has worked. Event producers have stepped up and agreed to compromise on items such as their footprint, vendor quality and road closures. Our city leaders should declare victory, perhaps gently raise some fees and move on. Events belong downtown.



Why Wait for Valentine’s Day?

When we think of Boca and Delray’s assets we might think of beaches, Atlantic Avenue, Old School Square, maybe the Boca Resort and universities.
Assets all.

Valuable– in some cases historic– and of course cherished and appreciated.
But people are also assets and we are certainly blessed in that regard as well.

I just think that sometimes we lose sight of the special people, because– let’s face it– the whiners, complainers, haters, bullies, nitwits and nasties can eat up a lot of our time and energy. That’s why it’s important to pause and remind ourselves that indeed there are good people in our lives and communities quietly doing yeoman’s work not because it’s a photo op, or they are getting rich or because they are self-serving but simply because they are good people who care. We’ve done this before on the blog with a group of people and we will do it again. Luckily, we have an endless list of people to love, cherish and appreciate. So if your name isn’t below, it’s not because we don’t appreciate and love you. We do. Just give us a little time to catch up.
Here’s a look at a few human assets that make our community sing.
Gary Eliopoulos–architect, dad, savior of historic homes, former city commissioner and the funniest man I know (and I know funny people). Gary and I grew up together in Delray. We were in the same Leadership Delray class way back when and I’m a proud member of his occasional happy hour group at The Sail Inn (a Yankee bar) where Gary, a Red Sox fan, holds court and keeps us laughing. And you can’t put a price on that. He’s also an amazing architect who adores Delray Beach and we love him back.
Bob Barcinski-Mr. B as he is affectionately known served as assistant city manager during a golden age of Delray retiring a few years back before an adoring crowd at the golf club. Bob was never comfortable with attention, deflected credit and was loyal to his boss, his employees and his community. He’s a happy grandpa these days who can still be found at the counter of the Green Owl. If you worked with Bob, you realized how great he was. He got it done. And done well. Without fail. Every single time. If you want to pick a guy to be in a foxhole with look no further than Mr. B.
Evelyn Dobson-director of the Community Land Trust and past Northwest Neighborhood leader, Evelyn is a passionate crusader for homeownership and neighborhood revitalization. She quietly gets it done. Take a drive through the neighborhoods where the Land Trust has built homes and you will see success and families transformed through the pride of homeownership. Evelyn is one my heroes.
Pame Williams–Pame works for the City of Delray and has also been active in the community for decades. Whether it’s volunteering at events or working to improve her neighborhood you can always count on Pame and she’ll always make you smile. She will also put you in line if you misbehave. I like that. Little known fact: she secretly likes Neil Diamond.
Gary Ferreri-a detective and union leader, Gary has a reputation for always going the extra mile. Whether it’s helping a neighborhood or speaking out on behalf of his fellow officers Det. Ferreri is a leader. He has a lot of fans in Delray.  He has unlimited potential because he’s smart and has a heart and feel for the community he protects and serves.
Linda Ripps -founder of Golden Retrievals, a Boca based rescue organization for my favorite breed. Linda has a heart of gold too. She’s rescued retrievers locally and from far flung places like Korea too.  Her work not only saves great dogs but it enriches families beyond measure. I’m reminded of her big heart every day when I’m greeted by 90 pounds of love and hair named Teddy.
Kevin Ross–the visionary president of Lynn University, Dr. Ross has never been afraid to shake up his curriculum and look outside for inspiration which he then brings back to Lynn so his students can benefit. I admire that ethos and it ensures that Lynn will disrupt not be disrupted.  I love working with Kevin. He inspires because he aspires: for his students, his faculty, his friends, his alumni and his community.
Mike Covelli–a talented land planner and designer, Mike always makes his projects stronger. One of the smartest people I know. Every time I speak to Mike I learn something I never knew before. He has insights and sees things in a very unique way. He makes every project he touches infinitely better and he’s a good guy too.
Tony Allerton–I’ve known Tony for close to 30 years and he’s always been a leader and a gentleman. The founder of The Crossroads, Tony’s leadership has helped people for decades and his organization serves almost 1,000 people a day. Think about that times 35 years. Tony’s passion for people in recovery who are trying to reclaim their lives knows no bounds. He has quietly made a profound impact on countless families.
Tim Snow-Tim is just one of the good guys. As head of the Boca-based George Snow Scholarship Fund (named after his father) Tim leads a 34 year old fund that has awarded more than $8 million in scholarships to deserving students in our community. He has changed so many lives through the gift of education.
It’s all about the people. We hope to spotlight many more in the future columns.

Even The Icons Fade

At its zenith, Sports Authority was a high flyer. A home grown juggernaut.

At its zenith, Sports Authority was a high flyer. A home grown juggernaut.

We went to Sports Authority over the weekend and it was sad.

The chain is liquidating which means all 400 plus stores–including those in Boca and Delray–will soon close.

The shelves are getting bare, the employees look disinterested and everything must go.

It’s a sad end to a South Florida institution which at one point was a remarkable success story.

The chain, once based in Lauderdale Lakes, burst onto the scene in 1987– the same year I moved to Florida. I remember shopping there frequently as I was easing into a lifestyle where you can play tennis and golf year round. I bought my first set of golf clubs (a Hubert Green signature set) at a Sports Authority and lots of racquets over the years.

Founded by Jack Smith, a veteran of Herman’s Sporting Goods (where we shopped as kids) the company grew to serve customers in 45 states and Puerto Rico. Within three years of its founding, Kmart bought the chain and later spun it off after a rapid expansion.

Like iconic brands such as Circuit City, Blockbuster and Borders, Sports Authority was disrupted by a variety of forces–including the rise of e-commerce and management that simply could not figure out a winning formula.

Ironically, sporting goods is a growing category topping $60 billion last year.

But the industry has changed. Consumers now seem to relish specialization–if you are into lacrosse or soccer you tend to shop at stores or online outlets that specialize in that sport where the selection is deeper and the sales staff is more knowledgeable.

In addition, suppliers such as Nike, LuluLemon and Under Armour are now competitors selling their wares in branded stores.

Retail has also become much more experiential with consumers wanting an experience which explains the success of places like Bass Pro Shops and Gander Mountain.

There’s a lesson here. You can never be complacent. Whether you are a city, a cultural arts center, a downtown, a restaurant or a retailer you have to grow and evolve. Complacency is a killer. Even when things are going well you have to wake up a little scared.

Blockbuster didn’t see Netflix or didn’t react fast enough, newspapers didn’t anticipate the threat of the Internet and Kodak missed the allure of digital photography even though they had the technology. In fact, they invented the digital camera. In 1975.

Today’s hot concept can be tomorrow’s casualty. Downtowns boom and bust, restaurant get hot and sometimes forgotten and cool concepts like Sports Authority can and do disappear.



Innovation Districts: A Recipe

5,500 square feet of magic in Eugene.

5,500 square feet of magic in Eugene.

“Innovation districts embody the very essence of cities: an aggregation of talented, driven people, assembled in close quarters, who exchange ideas and knowledge in what urban historians call a “dynamic process of innovation, imitation, and improvement.” –Peter Hall, Cities in Civilization: Culture, Innovation, and Urban Order


Boca Raton and Delray Beach have long championed the idea of creating “innovation districts”, a term we hear about often but probably never slow down enough to define.

Over the years, there has been a desire to attract the “creative class” to downtown Delray Beach, build on Boca’s rich history in medicine, education and technology (MedUTech) and create an innovation district along Congress Avenue. FAU’s Research Park has achieved enviable success and now FAU’s Tech Runway has a great opportunity to serve as a catalyst for creating an entrepreneurial ecosystem.

There are also several examples of co-working and incubator space in both Boca and Delray.

A recent white paper by the Brookings Institution has gotten a lot of traction among policymakers interested in Innovation Districts. Perhaps one of the best things it produced was a simple definition of the term: geographic areas with synergistic relationships among people, firms and places, allowing ideas to be generated and commercialized. These districts are also physically compact, transit-accessible, technically-wired and offer mix of uses: housing, office, and retail.

Bruce Katz and Julie Wagner of Brookings describe innovation districts as requiring entrepreneurs, educational institutions, start-ups, affordable housing and other urban amenities that are connected by transit and high-speed Internet.

Among the primary market forces driving innovation districts are private firms and universities seeking to be more efficient at innovation. The model that originated in Silicon Valley–where firms acted independently and were isolated on a campus or an industrial park–appears to be no longer in vogue. It is more effective to be located in places where people bump into each other by happenstance — at the office, in the coffee shop, at a music venue or at dinner. Ideas are shared at the office and away from the office, leading to more ideas and more innovation. This is a sea change from the model of the past 50 years where innovation happened in suburban office parks—accessible only by car. In that model, little to no thought was given to integrating work, housing and recreation. Today, companies and their workers see quality of life as a pathway to productivity and innovative breakthroughs.

A trend that is simultaneously strengthening innovation districts is millennials’ preference for urban living. According to the Council of Economic Advisors, 73 percent of college-educated 25- to 34-year-olds were living in large or mid-sized cities in 2011, compared to 67 percent in 1980.

Primary drivers of this trend are the neighborhood-building amenities that a vibrant city offers.

Essential to the success of innovation districts are what are called “innovation cultivators,” which support the growth of individuals, firms and their ideas.

Experts are pointing to downtown Eugene, Oregon as a good model for an emerging innovation district. Eugene offers lessons that may be useful for Boca and Delray.

In downtown Eugene, innovation cultivators include Fertilab, which focuses on incubating early-stage entrepreneurship; RAIN, which helps new business ideas accelerate to market; and the Technology Association of Oregon, which focuses on inputs to growth for tech companies including high speed internet infrastructure, access to talent, and community events like Hack for a Cause. All of these organizations now have offices that are within walking distance of each other.

“The trend is to nurture living, breathing communities rather than sterile remote, compounds of research silos,” said Pete Engardio in a recent article entitled “Research Parks for the Knowledge Economy,” that ran in Bloomberg Businessweek.

Says Brookings: “Innovation districts have the unique potential to spur productive, inclusive and sustainable economic development. At a time of sluggish growth, they provide a strong foundation for the creation and expansion of firms and jobs by helping companies, entrepreneurs, universities, researchers and investors—across sectors and disciplines—co-invent and co-produce new discoveries for the market. At a time of rising social inequality, they offer the prospect of expanding employment and educational opportunities for disadvantaged populations given that many districts are close to low- and moderate-income neighborhoods. And, at a time of inefficient land use, extensive sprawl and continued environmental degradation, they present the potential for denser residential and employment patterns, the leveraging of mass transit, and the repopulation of urban cores.”

So what’s the formula and do we have what it takes?

Brookings lists the following assets as key components:

Economic Assets are the firms, institutions and organizations that drive, cultivate or support an innovation-rich environment. Economic assets can be separated into three categories: Innovation drivers are the research and medical institutions, the large firms, start-ups and entrepreneurs focused on developing cutting-edge technologies, products and services for the market. Innovation cultivators are the companies, organizations or groups that support the growth of individuals, firms and their ideas. They include incubators, accelerators, proof-of-concept centers, tech transfer offices, shared working spaces and local high schools, job training firms and community colleges advancing specific skill sets for the innovation-driven economy.

Neighborhood-building amenities provide important support services to residents and workers in the district. This ranges from medical offices to grocery stores, restaurants, coffee bars, small hotels and local retail (such as bookstores, clothing stores and sport shops).

Physical assets are the public and privately-owned spaces—buildings, open spaces, streets and other infrastructure—designed and organized to stimulate new and higher levels of connectivity, collaboration and innovation. Physical assets can also be divided into three categories: Physical assets in the public realm are the spaces accessible to the public, such as parks, plazas and streets that become locales of energy and activity. In innovation districts, public places are created or re-configured to be digitally-accessible (with high speed internet, wireless networks, computers and digital displays embedded into spaces) and to encourage networking (where spaces encourage “people to crash into one another”). Streets can also be transformed into living labs to flexibly test new innovations, such as in street lighting, waste collection, traffic management solutions and new digital technologies.

Physical assets in the private realm are privately-owned buildings and spaces that stimulate innovation in new and creative ways. Office developments are increasingly configured with shared work and lab spaces and smaller, more affordable areas for start-ups. A new form of micro-housing is also emerging, with smaller private apartments that have access to larger public spaces, such as co-working areas, entertainment spaces and common eating areas.


Physical assets that knit the district together and/or tie it to the broader metropolis are investments aimed to enhance relationship-building and connectivity. For some districts, knitting together the physical fabric requires remaking the campuses of advanced research institutions to remove fences, walls and other barriers and replace them with connecting elements such as bike paths, sidewalks, pedestrian-oriented streets and activated public spaces. Strategies to strengthen connectivity between the district, adjoining neighborhoods and the broader metropolis include infrastructure investments, such as broadband, transit and road improvements.


Networking assets are the relationships between actors—such as individuals, firms and institutions—that have the potential to generate, sharpen and accelerate the advancement of ideas.

Networks fuel innovation because they strengthen trust and collaboration within and across companies and industry clusters, provide information for new discoveries and help firms acquire resources and enter new markets.

Networks are generally described as either having strong ties or weak ties.

If you tally these assets up, Boca and Delray are positioned to have successful innovation districts.

Many of the principles outlined by Brookings, were incorporated in a recent task force effort to jumpstart Congress Avenue in Boca.

Lynn University, FAU, FAU Research Park, the Boca and Delray Chambers of Commerce, local hospitals and research facilities and private incubators and co-working spaces are all elements for success.

What’s missing in my view are stronger ties, a need for more events, a lack of venture, seed and angel capital (but some bright spots are emerging) and more media attention to build the area’s reputation.

Possible headwinds also include a lack of imagination with some, Ok maybe most—but not all– new development—i.e. the same old, high end condo’s and sprawl in the Ag Reserve—and not enough political vision to push and incent developers to create something new, different, cool and forward thinking. There is a need for creative space in both cities. NIMBYism is another threat; we have to be forward thinking and ensure that our downtowns evolve beyond food and beverage.

Still, our quality of life, proximity to key markets, universities, recreation, cultural amenities etc., are awfully compelling. Yes, we can make this happen. The ingredients are there and abundant.

 How to make it happen:

Practitioners in leading edge innovation districts offer five pieces of advice:


First, build a collaborative leadership network, a collection of leaders from key institutions, firms and sectors who regularly and formally cooperate on the design, delivery, marketing and governance of the district. In advanced innovation districts in Barcelona, Eindhoven, St Louis and Stockholm, leaders found the Triple Helix model of governance to be fundamental to their success. The Triple Helix consists of structured interactions between industry, research universities, and government.

Second, set a vision for growth by providing actionable guidance for how an innovation district should grow and develop in the short-, medium- and long-term along economic, physical and social dimensions. Most practitioners cite the importance of developing a vision to leverage their unique strengths—distinct economic clusters, leading local and regional institutions and companies, physical location and design advantages and other cultural attributes.

Third, pursue talent and technology given that educated and skilled workers and sophisticated infrastructure and systems are the twin drivers of innovation. Pursuing talent requires attraction, retention and growth strategies; integrating technology requires a commitment to top notch fiber optics (and, in some places, specialized laboratory facilities) to create a high quality platform for innovative firms.

Fourth, promote inclusive growth by using the innovation district as a platform to regenerate adjoining distressed neighborhoods as well as creating educational, employment and other opportunities for low-income residents of the city. Strategies in places as disparate as Barcelona, Detroit and Philadelphia have particularly focused on equipping workers with the skills they need to participate in the innovation economy or other secondary and tertiary jobs generated by innovative growth.

Finally, enhance access to capital to support basic science and applied research; the commercialization of innovation; entrepreneurial start-ups and expansion (including business incubators and accelerators); urban residential, industrial and commercial real estate (including new collaborative spaces); place-based infrastructure (e.g., energy, utilities, broadband, and transportation); education and training facilities; and intermediaries to steward the innovation ecosystem. Districts in Cambridge, Detroit and St. Louis have successfully re-deployed local capital to meet these needs.


Unity in the Community


Spirit and connectedness.

I’ve been thinking about those two words lately.

What binds us together as a community, as a state, as a nation?

The word united comes first in our national identity: United States.

We are Americans first and foremost, country before party right?


Yet, we seem to be living in an age of hyper-partisanship. Red States and Blue States. Liberals and Conservatives. Republicans and Democrats.

The divisions are large and seem to be getting larger. And interestingly enough, the divisions are now extremely pronounced even among members of the same political parties. Establishment versus tea party. Establishment versus the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party.

Any student of American history understands that politics has never been a gentle affair–dating back to the days of Jefferson, Adams and Hamilton our nation’s discourse has always been spirited and at times vitriolic and even violent.

But doesn’t this feel a tad different? Isn’t this year perhaps a few degrees beyond the typical?

Is it possible to unite anymore? Are we beyond sharing a common national spirit? Can we connect?

I’ve always been oriented to the local. So that’s the prism in which I view things.

When I began my career in journalism, I aspired to practice community journalism. I had no desire to cover Washington or the world even though I was interested in both.

When I tried politics it was with the goal of serving in local government. I never aspired to work in state or federal government.

I sensed it was easier to find spirit and connectedness in a small city than on a bigger canvas. And that was important to me. If you can find a tribe that’s committed to building community you can experience real progress. I always felt Delray was large enough and diverse enough to be interesting and small enough to get your arms around and make things happen.

And so it has been.

Boca too…although it’s a vastly different place.

For a long period every initiative, every project, every amenity was viewed through a wide lens not a narrow self interest. Did it build community? Did it serve the long term vision of citizens? Was it a net gain or did it detract from what people were trying to build here?

I think the key to spirit and connection is to have a vision.

The vision must be citizen driven and include a process that is inclusive and invites stakeholders to share.

The process is almost as important as the outcome when it comes to visioning; you want to make sure people are invited to share their thoughts and aspirations in a safe environment that encourages intelligent discussion and deep conversations. People should be encouraged to think big but it’s also important to inject facts and best practices into the conversation to drive the process.

The best visioning exercises are community builders; civic projects that bring people together.

In my mind, that was the real value of the All America City Award which required people to work together in an effort that inevitably tore down barriers and built civic pride.

It’s hard to do this on a national level, but possible. It seems nationally, we rally when threatened; in times of war or terrorism.

On a city level it’s not easy but it’s essential and very doable.

That was Delray’s secret sauce.

And it worked.

When visions are accomplished or grow old and need refreshing and leadership fails to take the time to do bottom up planning you inevitably end up with drift, division and an erosion of civic bonds.

After several successful visioning processes, Delray rushed a visioning process ahead of a mayoral election and major staff upheaval a few years back.

The timing was horrible and the process and its aftermath felt different–somewhat empty not energizing as previous efforts had been.

As a result, Visions 2020 has been mothballed.  It doesn’t drive conversations or inform decision making and even connected citizens can’t remember what it said.

But that doesn’t mean that you can’t try again or that visioning is flawed.

Smart elected officials welcome exercises that build community and forge visions. It helps them make decisions: if something fits the vision you support it. If something is contrary you vote no.

But without a vision there is no real direction– just ad hoc decision making, personal preferences, a whole lot of politics and people feeling disconnected.

Small cities have an option to bring people together. Only the small minded, egotistical and optically driven elected official can’t see that logic. A word to the wise: nobody cares what individual elected officials think. Your job is to forge a vision by bringing as many smart, caring and committed people to the table as you can. That’s leadership because nobody cares if you don’t like the color of a snow fence or the taste of garlic.

It’s not your town or your staff, it all belongs to the stakeholders–those that hold  a stake. Elected officials are stewards and ultimately they work for us; or at least they should.

Congress lost that truism a long time ago. There’s no excuse for local government to follow suit.