The city of Bend and Oregon State University-Cascades are working on plans to develop an innovation district around the school. If they’re to succeed, they should insist on some things going in — primarily transparency.
Innovation districts are, according to the Brookings Institution, “the ultimate mash up of entrepreneurs and educational institutions, start-ups and schools, mixed-use development and medical innovations, bike-sharing and bankable investments — all connected by transit, powered by clean energy, wired for digital technology, and fueled by caffeine.”
While there’s clearly some hype built into that definition, the idea of creating a special, university-centered district in a city where new ideas could be tried out before they’re presented to the public at large makes sense.
As city councilors heard July 17, those pushing forward with a proposal to create an innovation district see it as a place where zoning rules could be different from those elsewhere, among other things. Carolyn Eagan, the city’s economic development director, noted that a district might be perfect for single-room occupancy dwellings, as one example — something that would be a hard sell throughout the city at large.
The district, as conceived, would be run by a private, nonprofit agency, governed by a board named by stakeholders in the district. What does a private nonprofit mean for openness and transparency? It could mean that it was all conducted behind closed doors and that public money would be spent without the public understanding what was going on. City and university officials must abide by Oregon’s open meetings and records law in creating the district and insist that the district’s governing agency abide by those same rules once it is in place.
The district will, after all, include Bend residents whose lives may be changed by what goes on there. If the city cedes its authority there to nonelected, nongovernment officials, it must at least see that the existing requirements of openness apply. That’s true if public money is involved, but it’s also true if no public funds find their way into the governing group’s coffers.
An innovation district could do wonderful things for Bend and for OSU-Cascades. Without a firm policy of openness, however, that’s less likely to happen.