Written by: Spencer Pitman
Last year I posted a question on Quora about objective barriers that exist to a thriving startup scene in the Southeastern US. Only one answer was posted, but it essentially came to the conclusion that engineers simply do not want to live in Southeastern cities.
This makes a good deal of sense to me. Cities in the American South are generally geographically huge, but lack density. Many of them have only experienced significant growth in the last half-century, and are plagued by cheap, tasteless development and “planned” communities with giant footprints and terrible space efficiency. They have impoverished arts scenes, and even more impoverished intellectual scenes. They are hot during the summer, and do not have climbing or good skiing during the winter. The South’s mountains and beaches are bested by the West, and its cultural resources are bested by the North. As Terrance Yang suggested in his response to my query, why would any hot shit designer or engineer or VC want to live there?
I have been in Jacksonville, Florida for a year now. It’s the first time since college that I have lived in the South, and the first time in my adult life that I have lived in a large city in the South. Having been raised here, but having lived in some of the best cities in the US, I came back acutely aware of everything in the previous paragraph. My reasons for returning are legion and uninteresting, but my plan had been to make it as temporary as possible.I recognized that Jacksonville and the South presented really no landscape for a startup culture, which is what I identify myself with, so I anticipated scrambling to get back to Boulder or San Francisco or Seattle as soon as I possibly could.
I was so wrong. Terrance Yang is so wrong. All my commiserate friends in the West are so wrong. The South is the future.
Jacksonville is an amazing place. It certainly suffers from the same problems that plague all southern cities: ridiculous city planning, a business culture that is dominated by an old boy network, a political conversation that is stuck on topics the rest of the country has moved on from and the summer heat! It would be easy to file it away as yet another place in the South where we can send the blue collar folks and the bankers while the rest of us intelligent creators innovate, incubate, synergize and gamify some pearls out of this oyster we call the world.
If we do that, though, then we’ll miss out on something pretty incredible. Something I never considered until I got here. Jacksonville (which I’ll use as a proxy for Southern cities) has potential. As in the place itself. We can come here and turn it into the tech/culture/arts/science paradise that we want so badly for other places to be, but without the social barriers and the established hierarchy and the cost of living. All you need here is stoke and vision, and the small developing scene will give you a voice. Come with money and the goal to incubate (see Shahid Khan and the OneSpark festival) and you’ll really have traction. Incredible historic buildings in the downtown area are for sale cheap, and there are acres of undeveloped blocks perfect for new construction. It’s proximal to several universities, and at least one of those is capable of producing quality engineers and designers. There’s beautiful beaches and the Riverside area (where I live) is cool and ripe for gentrification. In a recent google hangout with a group of techie B-listers, there was a lot of conversation about the scene feeling stale, about the barriers to entry growing higher and higher and a deterioration of the authenticity of the culture. Well guys, you want a renaissance, and I have found its landscape.
Of course, the key here is vision. Terrance Yang’s observations hold, and the Bold City isn’t there yet. There is a decent and completely stoked up group of locals with some really good ideas, but it’s ultimately going to take an influx of people from within the startup culture machine who know the game and are globally connected. It’s going to take Bay Area Gurus and Boulder Tri Guys and New York Elite who want to create not just startups, but an entire scene, and are willing to move someplace to do so. That’s probably not a very big group, but I’d challenge anyone who considers themselves a visionary (which is now an endorsable skill on LinkedIn) to come to this place and meet with some of these people and get in on the psych. To see the potential. I bet you can’t come here and not feel a stirring to make it happen. To turn what could be cool into what is fucking rad.
I have a spare room, and am willing to host anyone who’ll rise to the challenge. I’ll show you around, set up some meetings, and feed you. And who am I? Just another scene dude who stumbled into a great opportunity that I want to bring some other people in on. I’m also a very good cook. Come see.
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