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KC Aims to "Dream Big" with Innovation District along 18th Street

Updated: Feb 22, 2019

Published in Kansas City Business Journal October 9, 2018

When Pinsight Media CEO Kevin McGinnis left the Sprint Corp. subsidiary in March, he knew one thing – he wanted to serve the Kansas City community in a bigger way. So he started having coffees and lunches to figure out his next move, and one of those meetings reconnected him to KC Rising, where in 2015 he had pitched building an innovation hub.

Now, he is dusting off the idea and spearheading an effort to build an innovation district inside Kansas City's 18th Street corridor that will bring density and scale to innovation and entrepreneurship. McGinnis isn't ready to disclose the precise location of the district but wants it initially to connect the Crossroads Arts District and the 18th & Vine Jazz District.

"We always talk about this is a great place to live, and the only thing that typically draws people out of Kansas City is they don't see enough opportunity," McGinnis said. 

Kick-starting growth

He cited KC Rising's reports on Kansas City's performance compared with peer cities on key metrics such as human capital, innovation and entrepreneurship, and globally competitive sectors. Although Kansas City has grown since the recession, it's happened more slowly than peer cities. And as a Kansas City resident who's here for the long term, McGinnis wants to see that change. 

The innovation area, called Keystone District, aims to fill the gaps that KC Rising has identified in its reports, including workforce development challenges, collaborating at scale and a lack of corporate engagement in the entrepreneurial ecosystem.

The district will connect higher education institutions with corporations to deliver educational programs that arm individuals with the skill sets local companies desire. It also will host a variety of other programming aimed at innovation and entrepreneurship, such as lunch-and-learns, accelerators and incubators. It will be a place where educational institutions, corporations, entrepreneurs, startups and entrepreneurial programs can work and collaborate. It's about creating collisions through regular programming and ensuring that thought leaders have a place to go where they can reach scale, McGinnis said.  

Ron LeMay, co-chair of KC Rising's innovation and entrepreneurship work group and a managing director at OpenAir Equity Partners, pointed out that McGinnis visited 10 innovation districts nationwide to identify best practices. 

"It's clear that they make a difference," LeMay said. "If we're going to dream big, which is what I want to see us do in Kansas City and actually invest in the future, then we need to recognize that early-stage companies are the key to the future here. Big companies are really important, but the opportunity to achieve growth and capitalize on future opportunities depends on our ability to attract capital and attract talent and support early-stage businesses. … The fact that you can put together an innovation district with people of like minds and like commitments is going to attract companies that I think we'd struggle to attract otherwise." 

More than a workplace

The innovation district won't solely offer office and coworking space. "It's mixed-use for innovation," McGinnis said. 

The district would be constructed in phases and would include mixed-income housing as well as amenities that could include a music club, coffee shop, restaurants and an event space, McGinnis said. There also will be an innovation space that can be used for a variety of purposes such as university research or prototyping. 

McGinnis also views Keystone as an avenue to capture regional commercialization opportunities and build on the strengths of the region, including global design, smart city assets, and transportation and logistics. Keystone already has secured the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority as a strategic partner and has investors lined up to fund the project. A timeline for construction hasn't yet been set, but Keystone plans to begin hosting programs in existing buildings early next year. 

Having the innovation district in the 18th Street corridor is an opportunity to connect the dots and bring different disciplines together, said Steve McDowell, who has worked with KC Rising and is BNIM's director of design. It's near Kansas City's jazz district, and Hospital Hill and medical research facilities aren't too far away, he said. 

"It is a way to create serendipitous, impromptu interactions that in some ways represent what jazz is all about," McDowell said. 

But it also presents an opportunity to connect an area that for years has been separated by a racial divide and the Interstate 49/U.S. Highway 71 overpass, he said. 

"While we can't take back all that history, it's one opportunity to start to address the problems and connect communities east and west," McDowell said. "Our focus is really trying to make Kansas City a better place through this project and a better place for our people."

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