Communities / Startups

Rocking the suburbs: how the city’s boom will create regional balance

Today's urban enthusiasm around tech entrepreneurship is a big change from the suburban dominated 1990s-era tech business boom here. Does that make today's city focus a trend or a trick?

If you’re trying to define where the densest intersection of innovation is happening in a region, looking at where the technologists and entrepreneurs meet is a fine way to do it.

In Philadelphia, like many markets across the country, there has been a surge in meetups and unconferences and happy hours for the digital workers of today and they’re overwhelmingly happening in the city, largely in and around the Center City corridor. That’s a big change from the suburban dominated 1990s-era tech business boom here. Does that make today’s city focus a trend or a trick?

“This is fashionable, not inevitable,” said Paul Martino, the entrepreneur who founded Aggregate Knowledge before it sold for $150 million last year. “All the cool kids are in the city right now, but I won’t be surprised if the next tech bubble in 2022 is in the suburbs.”

For the Doylestown resident, the urbanism of the moment is a Millennial outlier, one that will play out as it has since Americans first discovered the glories of a driveway and a backyard.

“The kids will grow up, have children of their own and want better schools,” he said during an interview in the fall. In short, his logic goes, cities are getting better but just enough to attract young people who want to walk to the bar and empty-nesters who want to walk to the museums.

Michael Harrington

Michael Harrington

For Michael Harrington, a corporate lawyer in the Exton offices of Fox Rothschild who has worked on IT venture deals for the better part of 20 years, the recent success that Philadelphia city has had in building a tech business community is about balance, not dominance.

When an analysis of 2011 venture capital numbers showed that, of the country’s 10 biggest regions, Philadelphia was the only one in which most investment happened in the suburbs, rather than the city, there was surprise among city boosters. Many said the trend had to be back toward Philadelphia city.

If Harrington agreed that the new energy is growing in the city, he said that trend will bring a balance, “but you won’t see Philadelphia dominate as opposed to the suburbs,” he said.

In the end, as is often the case in complex demographic shifts, the answer is murkier than a city versus suburbs choice. The region benefits when its urban core is succeeding — take a train to 30th Street Station and be able to walk to meetings with investors and entrepreneurs — but that doesn’t have to come at the expense of its outlying communities.

Leigh Gallagher, the assistant managing editor at Fortune Magazine and a Media, Pa. native, has talked a lot about this in promoting her provocatively-named book ‘The End of the Suburbs.

The lifestyle trends that are helping to reawaken U.S. cities don’t actually mean all suburban communities will become blighted, she argues, instead, many will embrace the modern urban aesthetic of walkability, transit and mixed-use development.

By extension, the tech entrepreneurship culture that is growing in the city is being exported elsewhere. There’s the Dream Factory coworking space in Phoenixville and the Walnut Street Labs incubator, complete with microbrewery and a cluster of startup businesses.

Mike Krupit, a serial entrepreneur who was active in the Web 1.0 and cofounded in 2012 the Langhorne-based Novotorium accelerator, is a familiar face on the city event circuit today. He’s had the full regional tech business experience.

“The city is a big incubator” of ideas, Krupit said once. “The more of this activity, wherever it happens, the better.”

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