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Cities across country vie to be next Silicon Valley

| Saturday, Dec. 19, 2015, 9:00 p.m.

CHARLESTON, S.C. — A tiny light bulb hooked up to a computer lit, and Antonio Rojas-Rodriguez smiled.

“I did it!” the 20-year-old business student at the College of Charleston said of writing his first software program.

Light on, light off. It seems simple, but teaching students to write code is one way this grand old lady of iron latticework and history is trying to become an entrepreneurial haven.

Cities and states across the country are promoting entrepreneurship, especially in technology. With dreams of becoming something like Silicon Valley, they are providing money and expertise to startups and clustering tech companies in millennial-friendly neighborhoods.

These small and midsize cities, where centuries-old mills, foundries and factories closed, are trying to build 21st-century economies.

The Interdisciplinary Center for Applied Technology program at the College of Charleston is funding the business dreams of students like Rojas-Rodriguez.

The center, established this year with a $250,000 state grant, raised $250,000 from private sources. Six of eight projects in the first class became businesses.

“We don't promise kids that they'll be millionaires or even successful entrepreneurs,” said center director Christopher Starr. “But we give them the whole experience. They'll be ready if they want to do it, and we want them to do it here.”

Luring millennials — those born between 1981 and 1996 — is essential. They want to live, work and play in one place, so cities need bike paths and lanes, affordable apartments near workplaces, and clusters of restaurants, bars and music venues.

Chattanooga, Tenn., redesigned its downtown with city money, tax incentives and private investment to include a river walk, green space, aquarium and soon an “innovation district” that will include nearly 400 apartments as small as 300 square feet.

Developers have plans for a nonprofit enterprise center and accelerator downtown. Chattanooga's city-private partnership will spend $500 million to develop tiny apartments and redevelop open space.

“We've transformed from a dying foundry town into a growing technology center,” said Mayor Andy Berke, a Democrat.

Chattanooga credits its superfast Internet — 1 gigabit per second — for its burgeoning startup culture. The city of 173,000 calls itself “Gig City.”

Having major research universities nearby is a huge bonus when encouraging a startup culture. Graduates can work in tech startups or start their own.

That's how Research Triangle Park near Durham, N.C., became one of the country's most successful startup incubators.

Starting in the 1950s, the park worked with Duke University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University to provide low-rent space and training for students. The goal was to keep bright graduates in North Carolina.

Many stayed to start and run companies. The counties between Durham, Raleigh and Chapel Hill became “The Triangle” and attracted employers such as IBM.

Tech hubs in San Francisco, Pittsburgh and other cities benefit from world-class universities.

“The flow from these universities can have a huge impact,” said Bjoern Herrmann, CEO and founder of Compass, a San Francisco software company.

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