Boston mayoral hopefuls John R. Connolly and Martin J. Walsh are both angling for the start-up vote, and on Friday went into the heart of the city’s Innovation District to woo its denizens.
Both candidates made promises that pleased the young tech workers and entrepreneurs who gathered inside the newly opened District Hall, a clubhouse for the growing business district along the South Boston Waterfront. The event was hosted by the New England Venture Capital Association and BostInno, a website that covers the area’s tech community.
Each candidate said he would keep the city open later, undo strict codes and licensing requirements that limit night life, improve broadband connections, and ensure that young companies have access to affordable office space.
Although they shared many of the same views, Walsh and Connolly offered unique approaches to building up the city’s tech economy and supporting start-ups. For one, Walsh committed to naming an “innovation advocate” in his administration. He has previously said he would create a new Economic Development Authority to attract and work with businesses. As part of that, he said, his administration would look for more “incubator space” in the city, and help young companies find affordable space.
“These young companies will become the next hot companies,” Walsh said. “Innovation is going to be a big piece of the next mayor’s agenda.”
Connolly, meanwhile, promised to transform the way City Hall works with technology.
“I want people to feel like they are walking into the Apple Store when they are walking into City Hall,” Connolly said to much laughter from the audience.
Both said they would like to see the Innovation District, or something similar, expand, especially to underserved parts of the city. Connolly said he would push to create a pilot entrepreneurship center in Roxbury, and then possibly replicate that in other neighborhoods.
While Walsh talked about reclaiming old industrial buildings for housing and co-working space, Connolly stressed increasing the height and density of new buildings around Boston, especially near transportation hubs.
The need for more affordable space for start-ups struck a chord with Kenneth Leeser, president of Kaliber Data Security, a Needham start-up. Leeser lives in Fort Point and has been looking for space to relocate his young company, but cannot find anything affordable.
Rents are getting so expensive in the Innovation District that he is “afraid it will be a hub for entrepreneurs and there won’t be any entrepreneurs around,” he said.
But neither candidate seems to easily speak the language of start-ups or the tech businesses, Leeser pointed out, noting that Walsh could not name a business entrepreneur that he looked up to. When both candidates were asked whether they had any big idea for the innovation economy that was similar in scope to what Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City did by building a tech campus in Manhattan, neither had a specific answer that related to the tech economy.
Walsh admitted he is personally not a “big high-tech person.” Indeed, his comment that he would change the fact that bars in Boston need a license to operate a jukebox drew a few chuckles from the crowd.
For many at the event Friday, the differences between Connolly and Walsh came down to style and personality.
“The only way that I can think to distinguish them is the way they think about things,” said Jane Fine, who runs a marketing strategy firm in Boston that works with start-ups. As for the tech crowd, she said, “I have a feeling that John Connolly resonated more.”
But as has been a problem for each candidate during the race, few things distinguished either of them to a crowd looking for an advocate for the city’s growing tech sector.
That was clear from reactions that were posted on Twitter during the discussion with the candidates. The audience was encouraged to tweet questions to moderators Stephen Kraus, vice president of Bessemer Venture Partners, and Jeff Bussgang, a general partner at Flybridge Capital Partners.
“Right now they will do the same, right? I liked @marty_walsh tie better, will this decide the vote for #NextBosMayor,” tweeted Miriam Christof, a Boston marketing professional.