Wilson Chief Planning and Development Officer Rodger Lentz, left, chatted with Christopher Gergen and Alan Fowlkes, right, executive director of Carolina Commerce and Technology Center in Pembroke, Thursday during the Gig Pickin'. The celebration at 217 Brew Works capped the end of the planning phase of InnovateNC, which Gergen helped to create.
Brie Handgraaf | Times
217 Brew Works and the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park served as the backdrop for a gathering of InnovateNC participants Thursday at the Gig Pickin'.
Brie Handgraaf | Times
By Brie Handgraaf
Times Staff Writer
When Wilson was named along with Asheville, Greensboro, Pembroke and Wilmington as an InnovateNC city in 2015, the differences between the communities were more obvious than the similarities.
Now the cities have a common thread — an intentional approach to attract innovative thinkers and entrepreneurs.
“What I’m excited about is with this level of intentional action around a fairly enlightened vision, Wilson can be a model for other micropolitan communities across the state,” said Christopher Gergen, one of the founding partners of InnovateNC. “If we can help more communities get on the path of Wilson and follow its lead, I think North Carolina will be better off.”
While North Carolina was the first state to launch a program focused around inclusive innovation, Gergen was a co-founder in a national program called Forward Cities in 2012, which served as the foundation for InnovateNC.
“The point of Forward Cities is not dissimilar to InnovateNC in that we had three goals. One was how could we further strengthen and accelerate inclusive innovation in each of these cities,” Gergen said of New Orleans, Cleveland, Detroit and Durham, which were selected for the Forward Cities program. “The second was to enhance opportunities for collaboration between the cities and the third was to build a national learning conversation around the importance of inclusive innovation for all cities.”
Gergen said Forward Cities pushed the participants to focus on transforming neighborhoods with disproportionate discrepancies in economic development and small business. He said the program helped the participating officials collaborate on developing strategies and helped to shape a national conversation about how innovation will factor into the country’s future economy.
His roots in Durham compelled Gergen to advocate for an innovation initiative among North Carolina cities that also could help influence state legislation.
“The need is there. We have to do this. If we don’t, North Carolina is going to fall behind and communities in North Carolina are going to fall behind,” he said. “Innovation will naturally happen in places like the Triangle, the Triad and Charlotte, but it is a struggle in other communities. How to foster this economic transition will be an important question for our state in the next five to 10 years.
“The more intentional we are about helping to make that transition, the better our state will be. How we get there remains an open question, though.”
Paula Benson, executive director of Wilson 20/20 Community Vision, was a part of the InnovateNC implementation in Wilson from the start and became the co-chair for the effort with Wilson City Manager Grant Goings.
“We have recognized that innovation is defined in a whole lot of different ways depending on perspective,” she said. “There even is a separation between innovation and entrepreneurship. While entrepreneurs are many times considered innovative, these characteristics aren’t necessarily one in the same.”
About 20 Wilsonians from the public and private sector worked together to develop an innovation-centric strategic plan for the community. The plan focuses on developing and recruiting startups and existing companies with the fiber optic broadband network with five objectives: build talent and opportunities, support growth of existing enterprises, host networking events, encourage creative placemaking and market the community to employers and residents.
“As a community, we recognize the importance of being inclusive and being authentic to who we are. We recognize our strengths and our assets, and we are using those to address whatever challenges we might have,” Benson said. “I think an innovative community is willing to be bold in developing strategies and partnerships to keep the community moving forward, and we have the leadership in place to develop and implement strong strategic plans.”
In the fall, Wilson served as the host city for the “Gig East: Growing the Gigabit Ecosystem” conference and there have been several meet-ups at 217 Brew Works this year with topics surrounding technology and entrepreneurship. Benson said with the conclusion of the planning phase of InnovateNC, the past events serve as the foundation for future activities.
Institute for Emerging Issues Policy Manager Sarah Langer Hall said the social side is as important as the physical infrastructure in an innovative ecosystem.
“You can’t just put in the infrastructure and not have social support around it. I think you need to have amenities that have nothing to do with innovation, but speak to quality of life,” Hall said. “It is important to have that talent pipeline and instill the entrepreneurial spirit in young people, but I think Innovate Wilson is doing great with factoring the big picture in their long-term strategy.
“When I think about what an innovative community is, it is an X factor. People want to be a part of the community and that is the case with Wilson.”
To learn more about InnovateNC efforts in Wilson, visit www.wilsonnc.org/innovatenc/.