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In Arlington, town officials want to lay out the welcome mat for startups

Posted by Scott Kirsner  November 8, 2012 09:13 AM

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In the 15 years that I have been writing about the innovation economy in Massachusetts, I have visited companies in Westwood and Worcester, Southie and Lexington, Reading and Wareham. Plenty in Cambridge, of course. But I have never been to meet a startup in Arlington, that charming bedroom community nestled between Cambridge and Lexington.

Arlington seems to be working to change that. The town hired its first economic development coordinator, Alan Manoian, back in May. Manoian has been thinking about how to attract startups and how to promote what he calls Arlington's "innovation lifestyle." There have also been discussions about creating an Arlington Innovation Center, where early-stage ventures could congregate and share resources.

When I met recently with Manoian and Carol Kowalski, Arlington's director of planning and community development, they didn't have many specifics to share. (Manoian and Kowalski are pictured above.) But Manoian mentioned that companies like VisiCalc, Mitre, and Wang Laboratories all had roots in the town. And there are some historic mill buildings in Arlington, as well as second-floor offices along Massachusetts Avenue and Broadway that could provide space for fledgling companies. But Arlington isn't home to any large office buildings or corporate campuses, unlike neighboring Lexington, and Manoian says the town's niche could turn out to be companies in the "10 to 100 employee range."

I polled a handful of people from the startup scene who live in Arlington, and none of them had yet heard from Manoian, or were familiar with the town's initiative. Larry Bohn, a former tech exec who is now a partner at General Catalyst, said he'd lived in the town for 30 years, and "the only startup I remember is Boston Light Software," an e-commerce company founded by Paul English and acquired by Intuit. English, another Arlington resident who went on to co-found the travel search site Kayak, said he had found cheap, $8-per-square-foot warehouse space for Boston Light "walking distance from my son's nursery school at the time," on Lowell Street. (Kayak's technology operation, which English runs, is based in Concord.) Rob Go of NextView Ventures and Chris Lynch of Atlas Venture both sounded skeptical that the town could build enough critical mass to become appealing to startups, and also that there's enough space that'd be suitable. "There isn't really any commercial space, except storefronts," Lynch wrote via e-mail.

Kowalski says that she has been talking with some commercial property owners in the town about making their buildings more hospitable to startups, which often want small spaces with an opportunity to expand as needed, and short-term leases. The town may soon organize a design charrette to bring together property owners, entrepreneurs, and interested residents to talk about making the town more welcoming to innovation-oriented businesses. Manoian talks about an "open source process."

We'll see how that process plays out and whether startups and Arlington residents cotton to the concept.

(One thing that could be a forerunner of this future startup community in Arlington: the newly-expanded Barismo coffee roastery on Mass. Ave., which may actually include space for seating.)

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About Scott Kirsner

Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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