Idaho Falls and Idaho National Laboratory are working on plans to turn the fields around MK Simpson Boulevard into a hub for research institutions.
The city received a $55,700 grant from Battelle Energy Alliance earlier this month to establish a master plan for an innovation district centered on the Center for Advanced Energy Studies (CAES) and the regional campuses of Idaho State University and the University of Idaho. By making the region of town an innovation district, the city hopes to spur a focused expansion of businesses and amenities in the area.
Innovation districts are sections created in or near major cities where a specific field of business or research creates a hub for broader economic development. The most famous innovation district is Research Triangle Park in North Carolina, an overlap between three high-profile universities where hundreds of companies have moved in.
“We can’t predict the future or how large we will grow, but certainly there will be a need for the research INL conducts and the related businesses in a district like this one,” said Marsha McDaniel, director of INL’s economic development office.
The lab has long partnered with regional college campuses through CAES on research into energy and cybersecurity. There had been conversations for years about further building out the area before Idaho Falls became seriously invested in the idea.
Dana Briggs is the city’s economic development coordinator and the manager of the innovation district plans. Briggs said the founding stakeholders will soon begin reaching out to other businesses and residents within the hundreds of acres covered by the master plan study, as well as looking into how other cities had encouraged the growth of districts in the past.
While Idaho Falls’ plans would be limiting some aspects of what was developed in the district, there would still be a wide variety of additions being considered. Restaurants and stores would be brought in to let employees eat and shop without leaving the district.
On the outskirts of the proposed boundaries, the city is considering expanding its housing stock to let people live closer to their work.
“The point of the innovation district is to be pretty mindful and deliberate about what is included so the larger purpose of technology and innovation is achieved,” Briggs said.
In Idaho Falls, the district would likely follow the “anchor-plus model” of districts like the one in Cambridge, Mass. INL would be the central institution, attracting both businesses in related fields to open nearby and expanding the potential partnerships for the nearby campuses of Idaho State University and the University of Idaho.
”Right now we’re very much a commuter school,” said Lyle Castle, dean of the ISU-Idaho Falls campus. “Instead of being over here and somewhat isolated, it would have other amenities around for our students to participate in.”
Idaho Falls’ innovation district would be the first of its kind in Idaho, though there are other lab partnerships that the city could look to as examples. In California, the Livermore Valley Open Campus was created as an innovation hub located halfway between Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratory.
Not all examples of business incubation partnerships have worked out well. The Utah Science Technology and Research Initiative was launched by the state government as an incubator of business partnerships with state universities. Utah shut down the project in 2019 in the aftermath of a state audit that found the program had dramatically overstated the number of jobs created.
The centrist public policy think tank the Brookings Institute has been one of the leading research groups on the growing popularity and economic impact of innovation districts, in both major and minor American cities.
“Innovation districts constitute the ultimate mash-up of entrepreneurs and educational institutions, start-ups and schools, mixed-use development and medical innovations,” researchers Bruce Katz and Julie Wagner wrote in a 2014 report.