Chattanooga's innovative Geek Move program, which offers incentives for technologists to relocate there, works on a number of levels. Other aspiring technology centers would do well to pay attention.
A previous blog post touched on Chattanooga's efforts to jumpstart an entrepreneurial culture on the back of the city's 600-sq.mi. installation of fiber (see Location, Location and Fiber). Now let's get more particular about what the city is doing that others might emulate -- though it's easier said than done.
One unique aspect to Chattanooga is the collection of foundations that have as part of their mission enhancing the quality of life in the city. Several of the foundations sprang from Coca-Cola bottling fortunes established in the twentieth century. One of these, the Lyndhurst Foundation, has been instrumental in motivating, organizing, and funding the Geek Move program.
The program will award up to 10 incentives, totaling $11,250 each, to encourage skilled technology workers mow living more than 50 miles outside of the city to move their base of operations to Chattanooga. The main instrument in this incentive is a $10,000 forgivable second mortgage. The relocating geeks must buy a house in one of eight qualifying neighborhoods, and if they do so then a local bank will supply $10,000 at the closing. This second mortgage is forgiven over a 5-year period, rather like the vesting of stock options. There is also $1,250 to help with moving expenses.
The genius of this program is that, while it exists first and foremost to help improve and stabilize neighborhoods that are on the way back up as the city revitalizes, it simultaneously boosts the entrepreneurial and business culture of the city. And businesses that are looking for geeks to hire can register with Geek Move, and then anyone they hire receives priority consideration in the relocation program.
I spoke with Sarah Morgan, the program officer at the Lyndhurst Foundation responsible for Geek Move. She said that the program has been running for 6 months on and off, and had attracted serious interest from "eight or nine" geeks, two of whom are looking in the designated neighborhoods for housing now.
What interested me most of all about the program was its long-horizon thinking. Geek Move is not the first such program Lyndhurst has sponsored using the forgivable mortgage instrument. Earlier programs, going back decades, tried to entice policemen, firefighters, artists, and teachers to relocate to Chattanooga. (All but the one for teachers enjoyed some success, Morgan told me. It turns out that teachers don't particularly want to live in close proximity to their schools.)
The foundations and The Gig (as boosters call the fiber infrastructure) are among the "unfair advantages" Chattanooga is working to exploit. Perhaps the most important advantage, and the hardest to emulate, is a singular alignment of purpose among city, county, and state governments; non-profits; businesses and the Chamber of Commerce; VCs and angel investors; and EPB, the agency that owns the fiber. In last week's Demo Day (see Three Geek Teams Claim Gig Tank Awards), the city demonstrated that alignment for over 500 invited guests from around the country and the world, as student and entrepreneur teams showcased their ideas about what gigabit connectivity is good for.
Any city or region desirous of growing an entrepreneurial culture would do well to study how Chattanooga is attracting its geeks, and follow that example to the extent they can.