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Vibrant downtowns are perfect fits for technology firms

Technology firms needs many things to thrive, primarily a never-ending supply of talented recruits. But increasingly there's evidence that tech firms also need something more to attract all that talent -- a thriving downtown environment.

That  was the message on Friday at the annual Ann Arbor Tech Trek, an event that saw some 60 technology firms clustered in downtown Ann Arbor open their doors to the public for a day of food, fun and education. At least 2,000 visitors made the trek, many of them parents with school-age children hoping to expose their kids to potential careers in tech fields.

Rich Sheridan, CEO of Menlo Innovations, a custom software designer, came to Ann Arbor in 1978 to attend the University of Michigan and never left. Today, his firm is one of the largest tech firms in downtown Ann Arbor, sprawling across an entire city block in the basement level of a downtown building.

"By and large the software industry in Ann Arbor has always been vibrant but it’s always been on the outskirts" in anonymous office parks, Sheridan said. There's "a relatively recent phenomenon where high-tech companies to attract and retain and be exciting to their potential workforce are starting to locate in downtown areas."

"There’s a cool factor to downtown," he continued. "There’s some great advantages because quite frankly our customers want to come here and visit us because we’re downtown. It just makes us more interesting.."

Plenty of tech firms still operate from those faceless office parks out along our highways. But Ann Arbor isn't the only Michigan city hoping to combine a vibrant downtown with a growing technology cluster.

Businessman Dan Gilbert has said numerous times that he moved his Quicken Loans to downtown Detroit in 2010 because his youthful workforce no longer was content working in an office park overlooking a freeway. His young recruits wanted what planners call walkable urbanism -- that mix of restaurants, shops, parks, bike lanes and other amenities all within an easy walk from where they live and work.

That's a change from Detroit's 20th-Century model where our automotive pioneers located both their factories and their headquarters away from downtowns, as in Detroit's New Center area (General Motors) or Dearborn (Ford). But today's downtown environments offer a perfect fit for those young tech firms that need smaller amounts of space at reasonable costs in a locale that will be attractive to the kind of talent they need to compete.

This article was originally published in the Detroit Free Press.
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