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Smart building: Group plans innovation hub

If a coalition of Baltimore thinkers gets its way, Charm City might become home base for the next big thing in the world of innovation and entrepreneurship.

The Innovation Alliance is moving forward with development of a physical hub to serve Baltimore’s community of innovators, entrepreneurs and technology enthusiasts by bringing their many interrelated activities under one roof. In a report dubbed “The Canvas of Innovation” — the final version of which was released Tuesday — the group unveiled details of the facility’s novel operational model, including potential funding sources, institutional partnerships and structural design plans.

Newt Fowler, chair of the Innovation Alliance, said he and his co-chair, Jason Pappas, chairman of the Greater Baltimore Technology Council, searched for a model for the all-inclusive hub they envisioned, but never found it. No single facility addressed all the needs of a startup community, he said, from mentoring and networking to co-working spaces and educational programming.

But if all goes according to plan, he said, Baltimore will have such a facility.

Fowler, who also is a partner at Rosenberg | Martin | Greenberg LLP, said he expects to be up and running within a year to 15 months. He said developers are refining their designs for the facility, which will feature wide, open areas in addition to smaller, office-sized spaces.

The hub will be housed in a former trolley repair facility, the Pratt Street Car Barns — an industrial, 35,000-square-foot structure built in the 1890s.

Fowler also said the group is in the early stages of talks with several potential partners who could be brought on as anchor tenants for the facility, at 1146 E. Pratt St. The model would bring in an organization — likely a business accelerator, co-working laboratory or similar business incubation facility — as the primary tenant to generate revenue. Developers also have secured city and state tax credits, Fowler said, adding he’s not concerned about the revenue stream for the project.

Fowler said it would be premature to name specific organizations, but that they still have their eye on the Emerging Technology Center in Canton. The ETC was originally assumed to be the top choice, but they have since indicated they are considering other locations for their business accelerator operations.

Organizers hope the facility will fall into rhythm with Baltimore’s existing innovation community, while at the same time providing the space necessary for the entire ecosystem to flourish at its optimal level.

“The research shows that the most successful communities are really an amalgam of different folks, different organizations, different experiences,” Fowler said. “So what we’re hoping we can help foster for Baltimore is a facility that’s designed to be inclusive of a lot of different definitions of innovation — everything from technology to social entrepreneurship to cyber. We’re hoping it will be viewed as a focal point for other groups to bring their activities and events.”

Tuesday’s report — which was funded by a $75,000 grant from The Abell Foundation and prepared by Facility Logix, a Fulton-based consulting firm — was completed in two phases.

The first, which was released in February 2012, included a survey of more than 170 people who asked which of the programs, events and activities geared toward boosting innovation in Baltimore are effective and what elements are missing that would accelerate the growth of technology and entrepreneurism.

The survey was created to gauge whether Baltimore’s thinkers and doers want — and would benefit from — the addition of a new facility to serve as a physical breeding ground for their ideas. The answer was a resounding “yes,” with 85 percent of respondents saying they would use such a hub if one existed.

Armed with that feedback, the Innovation Alliance convened members of the community for a brainstorming session, held one year ago, to discuss the next steps. The session focused on implementing participants’ desired changes, and their responses were taken into account when developing more detailed plans during the second phase of the study.

The biggest challenge, Fowler said, is designing a facility that fits the needs of Baltimore’s innovation community. Although the Innovation Alliance is pulling bits and pieces from multiple programs, he said the final product will be distinctly Baltimore.

“The most successful of these projects are uniquely designed to the communities they serve,” he said. “They have a soul. And we learned that you can’t plan and think and explore too much to figure out what the right soul is for this facility here in Baltimore.”