Town, gown and techies team up in Bloomington

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Bloomington may be known for rolling hills, college life and candy stripes, but local leaders also want to plug it as a hotbed for cyber infrastructure, digital media and supercomputing.

To help the city’s emerging technology sector blossom, city officials and the Bloomington Economic Development Corp. banded together in 2008 to create the Bloomington Technology Partnership. Their strategy: Put business execs and tech educators from Indiana University in the same room to figure out how they could help one another.

After all, technology students need jobs, businesses need new talent, and the city wants to promote and strengthen a promising pie-slice of the local economy. Just add an advisory board, networking events, educational forums, social media and a dedicated website.

“We thought that technology was a good opportunity for us,” said Ron Walker, president of the Bloomington Economic Development Corp., which co-funds the partnership with the city. “We have an entrepreneurial type of town. And there’s a lot of tech talent coming through IU.”

The university’s School of Informatics and Computing counts about 1,200 students. Current students and graduates have landed jobs and internships with the city’s several dozen tech firms via connections made through the partnership.

“We talk about what we see as the challenges, issues and strengths of the growing tech sector,” said Danise Alano-Martin, the city’s director of economic and sustainable development and a member of the partnership’s advisory board. “Having the school there is important, because they are the ones who are building that work force.”

The partnership, which operates under the BEDC umbrella, also is keen to attract new tech firms to the city, which has paid off. Virginia-based Cigital Inc., which makes security software used by Fortune 250 companies, announced in March plans for an office in downtown Bloomington that could employ 25 people by 2014.

Cigital executives contacted the School of Informatics and Computing early in its decision-making process, according to Jeremy Podany, director of career services for the school and a BTP advisory board member. Its students were a major draw.

“We’ve talked with [Cigital] about their strategy for recruiting our students, about how you find the best students,” Podany said.

The BTP relationships forged among the school, economic development officials and local tech companies made it easier to bring those populations to the table with Cigital execs and make a case for the city, Podany said.

The partnership’s latest product is, a web portal that seeks to promote Bloomington as a technology hub and hidden gem to companies, as well as experienced tech workers looking for a new home.

“One of the things we found is a critical need for recruitment of talent,” said Alano-Martin. “[Bloomington is] a great source for entry-level talent. But we found that tech companies needed more experienced, project-manager type of employees that they couldn’t find as readily in Bloomington. And it’s difficult to attract that level of employee.”

More than an online billboard, the site features social media links, a job bank, blog feed, calendar of geek-friendly events, and tweets from members of the local tech community. It intends to leave the impression that Bloomington offers a plugged-in tech community and lots of employment opportunities, along with a relatively stress-free lifestyle.

“It had to be savvy,” Podany said of the multifaceted site. “It has to be a 2012 portal. It can’t be, ‘Oh, here’s a few pictures of our community.’”

More than 40 local tech companies or organizations are featured in short profiles on the site, ranging from massive employers such as IU’s University Information Technology Services to light-on-their-feet mobile app developers such as WhimMill LLC.

Compared with the BTP’s previous site, the new portal is going gangbusters. The earlier site logged 217 visits per month, with an average of 1.5 page views over 1 minute spent on the site, according to Walker.

So far, the new portal is logging 778 visits a month, with an average of five page views over 3.5 minutes. The job bank section of the site was viewed 1,200 times in February.

The partnership likely will also play a role in helping plan a city-owned, 12-acre section of the Certified Technology Park, a 65-acre section of downtown Bloomington that has been earmarked for redevelopment tailored toward tech companies.

Some of the land is vacant, some is occupied by tech companies, and some is populated by warehouse or historic buildings looking for a new use. In February, the city kicked off its year-long master-planning process for its 12 acres, examining how to upgrade needed infrastructure, subdivide the land into easier-to-develop parcels, and attract private investment.

“We’ll have a plan for creating a high-tech employment hub,” Alano-Martin said. “We think that is where employers will want to locate, because downtown Bloomington is attractive to workers.”

A few members of the BTP are serving on the steering committee for the master-planning process. And due to the city’s relationship with the partnership, “I suspect I can lean on them to provide tech-specific advice,” Alano-Martin said. “They may be asked to do specific tasks.”

One of the advantages to courting tech firms, as opposed to those in some other industries, is that they leave a lighter footprint, Walker said.

“It tends to be easier to accommodate tech sector companies,” he said. “Tech firms just need talent, parking, a cool space and fiber. It’s a good fit for Bloomington.”•

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