Danbury is working to create the "Danbury Innovation Center," as part of the in the city's space now being leased to Union Savings Bank at 158 Main St. next door to the library.
The innovation center, Danbury's first, is a combination technology space and business incubator for helping small businesses get started. Similar spaces exist in Watertown, Westport, Meriden, Stamford, Hartford, New Haven, and Providence, RI, among many others nationwide.
"It's one of the trends across the United States," said Stephen Bull, president of the Greater Danbury Chamber of Commerce. Bull said the chamber tried a small business incubator in the past, but it didn't survive because it relied entirely on private funding. Bull called the Danbury incubator center a public/private partnership that might be more successful because of that partnership. "It's a natural extension of traditional library services."
The funding for the center will depend on voters agreeing to the bond proposal the City Council considered Tuesday night. The bond package will come before voters in November.
The city is proposing to borrow $550,000 to renovate the bank, which Union Savings Bank leased until it completed its new branch at the corner of Main and Boughton streets downtown. The city has been trying to figure out over the last year what to do with the former bank space once it takes possession of it later this year.
The bank is attached to the library, and the library already uses the second floor as a technology center and classrooms. On the ground floor, Friends of the Danbury Public Library use two rooms to sort books donated to help raise money for the library. This proposal will not take the rooms from the Friends, Boughton said.
"It will be open to the community," Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton said. People who use the Danbury innovation center will pay a monthly fee. The hours and fees have not yet been set, and once the center is running, both the hours and fees are likely to change. The idea is the space would offer high speed computer access and machinery, including woodworking machines and others, such as a 3-D computer printer to help create objects or products. Welding, ceramics and other fields may be added as needs evolve. "This would be a workshop of ideas."
Two long-time Danbury computer entrepreneurs, Mike Kaltschnee and Jon Gatrell, presented this computer innovation/business incubator idea for the first time to Boughton, who directed them to the then interim library Director Michele Capozzella, who loved the idea, she said. Their next stop was CityCenter Danbury, a taxation and promotion district that works to promote and develop downtown Danbury. Executive Director Andrea Gartner said she is familiar with the idea in other cities and said Danbury is more than ready for it. The website for the project is http://www.DanburyHackerspace.com.
"I was really frustrated there was no incubator in Danbury," Kaltschnee said. "I was really impressed with the reception we had."
The space would cooperate with Naugatuck Valley Community College, the Workforce Investment Board, the Service Corps of Retired Executives and other groups that foster new businesses and worker training. That could include both the chamber and the federal Small Business Development Center, which has been based at the chamber in the past and now works out of Western Connecticut State University.
"They have been combining computing and applied engineering in Germany since the 1980s," said Dan Bertram, a member of the board for CityCenter Danbury and a principal in BRT, a landlord and business development company in Danbury, which opened Bruegger's Bagels and Papa John's Pizza on Crosby Street and Coyote Maverick on the Newtown Road. Bertram described the center as an umbrella under which people would work on computer innovations while others would work on growing small businesses. Sometimes they would work together and sometimes independently.
"It defines a new era downtown," said Andrea Gartner, executive director of CityCenter Danbury. "It's serving multi-purposes."
Gartner said the city has to decide what is the best use for the former bank space. The library has to decide both what it needs space for and what it's mission will be in the future. Gartner said it also creates a new place for people to go downtown, and it may help entrepreneurship and innovation. It helps young people, Gartner said, who are working on ideas, but they don't have the workspace available to turn the idea into reality.
"This is a microcosm of what we should be doing nationwide," Gartner said.