In DNC Bloggers’ HQ, The Story Of American Innovation Writ Small

A former car showroom in Charlotte, North Carolina, Packard Place has been transformed into a startup hub—and, for a few days, a media office—just as tens of thousands of politicos are descending onto the city to talk about how to create jobs and sustain the middle class in a new economy built on innovation and entrepreneurship. Obama’s themes are the building's successes.

The quirky Packard Place building in Uptown Charlotte, located just a few blocks from where the Democratic National Convention will be held this week, was built in 1928 as the local showroom for the early American luxury automaker Packard. Dan Roselli, who helped rescue the building some 80 years later, is enamored of the story behind it. James Ward Packard, an Ohio engineer and entrepreneur, wasn’t happy with the horseless carriage he was driving in the late 1800s. And so he wrote the manufacturer suggesting a few improvements. His input was, well, poorly received. “If you think you can do better,” Roselli narrates the response, “go build your own darn car.”

Obviously, Packard did. This five-story, 90,000-square-foot building in Charlotte is one of the vestiges of the classic brand. “When you see an opportunity to do things better than they’re being done now, to innovate in better ways than are being done now, if you go create a company founded on those concepts, that’s the hardcore essence of American entrepreneurship,” Roselli says. “That’s the DNA of this building.”

This story is a fitting history for the building’s modern-day reuse: In late 2010, Roselli and his wife Sara Garcés bought Packard Place in a short sale after it had been slated for demolition, with visions of turning it into the kind of startup hub the city had been lacking. “What if we made a building of nothing but entrepreneurs, floor to ceiling?” Roselli recalls. “What kind of impact would that have on the Charlotte entrepreneurial ecosystem?"

With remarkable timing, Packard Place has now been transformed just as tens of thousands of politcos are descending on nearby Bank of America Stadium to talk about how to create jobs and sustain the middle class in a new economy built on innovation and entrepreneurship. Obama’s themes are Packard Place’s successes (although the endeavor is distinctly non-partisan: “A lot of what we’re doing,” says Packard Place director Adam Hill, “independent of politics, politicians would want to support”).

Adam Hill
Packard Place has been remade into a LEED-certified building. It houses a couple dozen startups in various stages, including several within an energy-focused incubator and another incubator for social entrepreneurs. Its ground-floor not-for-profit community center, called the Garage, has become the central (and free) meeting place for entrepreneurs and business-advocacy groups from throughout the city (as well as for regular Thursday-afternoon happy hours).

And, as if this story couldn’t get any better for the politically minded: The whole building’s financing and renovation—requiring $8 million in total—was made possible by a low-interest loan program that was part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

“There’s been a lot of flack about the stimulus package and all of the government waste,” says Carmella Jarvi, who will be leading tours of the building throughout the DNC as part of a project she is leading called Charlotte Creates @ Packard Place. “So this is like the opposite of Solyndra."

Packard Place, and several organizations that have been working with it (including the local Chamber of Commerce, the Arts & Science Council, and the McColl Center’s Innovation Institute) have been hoping to use the DNC to spread the story of what’s happening in Charlotte. “We’re not just a pretty city—which we are, it’s a beautiful, beautiful city,” Jarvi says. “But there is some serious innovation, some forward-thinking stuff going on here.”

Charlotte is best known as a banking capital (at the depths of the recession, it was also known for its over-reliance on that wobbly sector of the economy). Additionally, the city is home to the headquarters of some 25 major energy companies, including Duke Energy. When Duke merged with Progress Energy this summer, it created the largest electric utility in the country. But the one thing Charlotte has not done well historically as an energy capital, Hill says, is support early-stage innovative energy companies. And that is where CLT Joules, the energy incubator at Packard Place, will come in. The startups within it are trying to pioneer new hardware and software for smart grids, as well as a new type of solar cell.

Thanks to expertise within the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, local entrepreneurs are also well positioned to develop businesses in informatics and Big Data. The Charlotte Creates event is planning to highlight local products and companies within that space, as well as in energy and sustainability, social entrepreneurship, product design and development, and arts and culture. Each of those areas already has some direct connection to Packard Place, although the three-day open-house showcase will also feature companies that aren’t headquartered there.

As for how Packard Place will leverage the DNC to actually lure people in to visit, Roselli laughs. “I don’t think we’re going to have a problem getting media into the building,” he says. Politico has rented out the top floor as its DNC headquarters. And a separate space has been set up within the building to house bloggers who are coming into town to cover the convention. Arianna Huffington will also be moderating a panel at Packard Place on female entrepreneurs as part of the StartUp RockOn convention initiative.

At some point, any of these visitors are bound to bump into Roselli, or Hill, or some of the entrepreneurs simply renting desk space in the Garage. As one of Packard Place’s most significant contributions to the community, the Garage offers leased work space, complete with furniture, Wi-Fi, and free coffee, for anyone with at least at least one month’s rent to put behind a good idea (entrepreneurs only, that is; Hill had to turn away a chiropractor). If the idea works out, entrepreneurs can expand their space here along with their business. If it doesn’t, there’s little risk involved. The Garage offers month-to-month leases (the entire lease is just two pages long), requiring no deposits, personal guarantees, or insurance.

Eventually, some of these businesses may come to occupy the upper floors of Packard Place, taking over space that was once, literally, a parking garage. And to think this whole place might have been torn down.

“Without the stimulus act, Packard Place doesn’t exist. It’s just that simple,” Roselli says. “In the depths of the Great Recession two years ago, who in their right mind places an $8 million bet on a building that’s going to be torn down? Only entrepreneurs are silly enough to see in Packard Place what no one else saw.”

That’s what makes this the perfect story for this political moment. But just as the convention is well timed for Packard Place, Packard Place could offer just the right anecdotal evidence for politicians there to use. “If they are wise,” Jarvi says.

Follow the conversation on Twitter using the tag #WhyHere.

[Image: Flickr user John Ashely; Packard Place Photos: Katy Hill]

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1 Comments

  • JAlvarado

    Great article, happy to see Fast Company cover startup activity in Charlotte!