February 27, 2018

New tech campus brings Silicon Valley spirit to Elm City

Photo | Contributed
Photo | Contributed
The 107,000-square-foot technology and innovation campus District New Haven is partially up and running. It features co-working spaces and amenites like a gym, restaurant and amphitheater.
Photo | Contributed
The entrance to the District's athletic club.
Photo | Contributed
An aerial view of the tech campus.

It's a workspace any fan of the HBO series "Silicon Valley" would recognize immediately: A high tech campus-style office park offering amenities like an onsite gym, a restaurant and an amphitheater and spaces for everyone from multi-employee companies to one-person startups.

But instead of being in Austin, Palo Alto or Boston, this temple of the new economy is rising from a long-abandoned bus garage in New Haven. Dubbed District New Haven by its developers, the cutting edge Elm City innovation and marketing firm Digital Surgeons and the design and build firm Urbane New Haven, the new office park aims to bring the spirit and style of Silicon Valley to Connecticut.

"I see it as a hub for entrepreneurial and innovative energy in the state," said David Salinas, 38, who has stepped aside after 11 years helming Digital Surgeons to devote all his time to District New Haven.

After several years of hard work, the 107,000-square-foot facility is partially up and running and already about two-thirds leased, Salinas said. Earlier this month, Digital Surgeons, which has 45 to 50 employees, moved in along with other firms, Salinas said. He expects the project to be complete, with the restaurant open and events happening in the amphitheater, by summer.

Salinas is especially enthusiastic about the building's "co-working" space, where fledgling firms will be able to rent everything from a floating desk to a full-fledged office on a daily or monthly basis. The co-working area, expected to open in the spring, will offer everything – Internet access, cleaning services, booths for private conversations, coffee – needed to run a business, Salinas said. Budding entrepreneurs will be up and running in as little as 20 to 30 minutes, he said.

Salinas is even more excited about the "multiple collision points" resulting from the shared work area. With so many energetic entrepreneurs in one place, cross-pollination, creativity and partnerships are inevitable, he said.

"That could turn into new jobs and revenue," he said.

The project may seem like a departure for a firm that has until now has specialized in digital marketing, innovation and consulting for clients as diverse as Lady Gaga and United Technologies Corporation. Not so, Salinas said. He sees District New Haven as Digital Surgeons 2.0. The firm is going to the next level, transforming its ideas and ethos into bricks and mortar to boost innovation in the city and the state, he said.

"Digital Surgeons focuses on brand development, growth and innovation," Salinas said. "The district itself is product development."

Creation of District New Haven was something of a happy accident. The building where Digital Surgeons rented offices was sold, and the firm had to move. That led Salinas and Urbane New Haven to look around and think. As soon as Salinas saw the derelict nine-plus acres at 470 James Street – the property was across the street from their then-offices – he knew what he wanted to do.

The partners bought the former bus garage for $1, with the state providing $6 million to tear down and clean up the onsite maintenance facility, Salinas said Using a combination of equity and financing, Digital Surgeons then invested $19 million to transform the remaining cavernous bus storage garage into state-of-the-art business space, he said. The financing was provided by Brownfield Revitalization LLC, Jonathan Rose Companies LLC, US Bancorp Community Development Corporation and O'Brien Statley Partners.

"We basically gut-rehabbed the entire thing," Salinas said. "The only thing left from the original building is the brick and metal truss work."

Salinas and Peter Sena, Digital Surgeons' co-founder, who has succeeded him as CEO, had an additional motivation to create District New Haven. Big boosters of New Haven and Connecticut, they were sick of the unrelenting negative talk about the state's economy in recent years.

The pair do not buy the doom and gloom. The state, including New Haven and the surrounding region, is teeming with innovation and energy and remains a great place to do business, they said. It's time to stop lamenting the loss of GE, which they noted has seen its stock price fall in recent years, and start focusing the growing, grassroots entrepreneurial energy and innovation that will be the future of the state's economy, they said.

In creating District New Haven, the pair is seeking to highlight and accelerate all these positive trends, they said.

"We wanted to change the story, and the way to change the story is take action," Sena said.

Christopher Hoffman can be reached at news@newhavenbiz.com

This story has been updated with additional information.

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