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Mayor suggests new venues for tech firms

Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh on Thursday called on the region’s technology sector to look beyond Kendall Square and the Boston Innovation District and open offices in city neighborhoods where few have so far ventured.

“Growth and opportunity must touch every neighborhood in our city,” Walsh said during remarks at the annual meeting of the Mass Technology Leadership Council, a major industry group. “There’s no reason why we can’t look at East Boston as an incubator, Brighton as an incubator, Mattapan as an incubator.”

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Walsh issued the challenge in response to MassTLC’s ongoing mission to add 100,000 new tech jobs in the state by 2020. The new mayor wants some of that economic growth to flow into neighborhoods in need of revitalization — much like Kendall Square 15 years ago or the South Boston Waterfront five years ago.

But members of the region’s technology community said the mayor should not expect businesses to move to those neighborhoods without city help.

Tim Rowe, founder of the Cambridge Innovation Center, said Walsh’s vision so far has not included a concrete pledge of public resources.

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“The mayor’s office is talking about this, but are they serious about it?” Rowe said after the meeting, which was held in the Innovation District at the Renaissance Boston Waterfront Hotel. “To what degree is the public sector going to support it financially?”

In the case of the Innovation District, Walsh’s predecessor, Thomas M. Menino, assiduously courted small and established companies alike as part of an effort to rebrand the burgeoning South Boston waterfront. The Boston Redevelopment Authority has since worked hand-in-hand with private businesses to develop appealing commercial and residential spaces, some on a grand scale, including the $800 million Fan Pier project that is now the headquarters for Vertex Pharmaceuticals Inc.

Rowe helped Boston create District Hall, which opened in the fall as a central gathering place for Innovation District businesses, and his nonprofit Venture Café Fund oversees daily operation of the 12,000-square-foot building.

Rowe said he told Walsh officials that his team would be happy to advise a group trying to establish a similar innovation center in a place like Dudley Square.

“But unless somebody wants to step up to do something very large — we’re talking tens of millions of dollars — it’s probably not going to involve us directly,” Rowe said.

Workbar chief executive Bill Jacobson, whose company runs a shared workspace in Cambridge and another near South Station, said he, too, is not likely to set up shop in the neighborhoods singled out by Walsh without broader investment.

“It’s hard for me to say, ‘OK, I’m going to build a center, and all these people are going to come,’” said Jacobson, who also was in the room for the mayor’s address. “It’s hard for us financially to build a center there and hope that it works. I don’t think that’s the right bet.”

A better approach, Jacobson suggested, would be to persuade companies already in those neighborhoods and have room to spare to offer affordable office space to startups. Rental prices play a big role in determining where early stage companies operate, so enticing them to open in Roxbury or Dorchester is a natural way to spur innovation in those neighborhoods.

Anticipating some skepticism, Walsh said his administration could help entrepreneurs find good workspaces in parts of the city they might not have considered before, though he did not propose a program for identifying those diamond-in-the-rough locations.

Callum Borchers can be reached at callum.borchers @globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @callumborchers.
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