The United States Conference of Mayors sponsored a delegation of mayors in St. Louis last week, April 11-12, to explore key components in the development of technology innovation districts. Outgoing St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay and officials from the T-Rex incubator and Cortex innovation district hosted the mayors, who were led by Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, chair of the Conference’s Council on Metro Economies and the New American City. The meeting was held in conjunction with the Brookings Institution

Nearly twenty years in the making, Cortex is a 200-acre redeveloped industrial site sandwiched between Washington University and St. Louis University. It now boasts nearly 330 companies scaling to over 500. Cortex is the master developer of the site with eminent domain and tax increment financing (TIF) powers granted by the city. A key to the site’s success was a set of leadership champions in the form of William Danforth, former chancellor of Washington University and John Dubinsky, president and CEO of Westmoreland Associates. St. Louis University, the University of Missouri-St-Louis, BJC HealthCare and the Missouri Botanical Garden became key partners. Cortex was initially seeded by Washington University endowment contributions and personal wealth contributions.

St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay leads a press conference reporting out what mayors are learning during their tour of the Cortex innovation district in St. Louis

Initially, Cortex was focused on the biosciences but shifted to a mixed-use district in order to build community, not just buildings. Fundamental to this shift was creating a networking and support structure focused on millennials and start-ups, and the design of work environments supporting them. These programs consist of an array networking, business and financial services administered by a group of non-profits, including the Center for Emerging Technologies, the Cambridge Innovation Center, Venture Café, Sling Health, TechShop, all located within Cortex. Dennis Lower, head of Cortex, said moving from “real estate development only” to the programmatic side of innovation was what distinguished true innovation districts that promoted startups.

Key to the success of Cortex and T-Rex, its downtown independent companion district, was the ability to find and raise capital for companies at every level of their growth, from startup to more mature stages. Brian Matthews of Cultivation Capital helped fill this role by raising angel and venture capital funds initially from local sources to meet the needs of the innovation district companies. The key he said was the ability to meet the capital needs of these companies at every stage of development. Often the financings are cobbled together from a variety of sources.

Brookings Institution Centennial Scholar Bruce Katz told the mayors that 21st-century cities must compete globally by creating innovation economies that rely on density, innovation, non-governmental funding and capital, placemaking that encourages networking and inclusion.

Mayor Slay praised the work of Cortex and T-Rex at a tour of the former’s site, but the other mayors, again led by Mayor Fischer, acknowledged Slay’s 16 years of service that laid the ground work for both innovation districts, bringing St. Louis world attention.

The Conference of Mayors delegation also included New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell, Carmel Mayor Jim Brainard, Irving Mayor Beth Van Duyne, Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola, Madison Mayor Paul Soglin, West Sacramento Mayor Chris Cabaldon, Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, and Springfield (IL) Mayor Jim Langfelder.

Key findings will be released in June at the United States Conference of Mayors’ 85th Annual Meeting in Miami Beach, Fl.