For most entrepreneurs, the clock is ticking, and Gary Oppedahl is no exception. It’s just that his startup is a city – the City of Albuquerque – and what he wants to leave behind is an entrepreneurial ecosystem that will live on.
“We are going to have a platform city,” said Oppedahl, Albuquerque’s economic development director. “The true visionaries of the future are not prescriptive. They help you fill in the future as you get there.”
Heading into the final quarter of his third year, Oppedahl is blazing through a long to-do list: public-private partnerships, arts and culture events, light rail and a downtown presence for “eds, meds, govs and labs” – University of New Mexico, Central New Mexico College, hospitals, health care providers, Sandia National Laboratories and more, such as the just-opened grocery store in the Imperial Building and a $70,000 grant that will bring in a new farmers market.
“My theme is to steal shamelessly and adapt to our own culture and resources,” said Oppedahl.
Entrepreneurial thought leader Brad Feld, who pioneered the ecosystem approach that made Boulder, Colo., a success, has been a big influence, Oppedahl said. His office hands out Feld’s book “Startup Communities” like hot cakes because it’s about elevating everyone.
Feld’s four principles Oppedahl lives by are:
- It has to be run by entrepreneurs, even if it’s government.
- Have a long-term “give before you get” mentality.
- Include everybody, no matter how messy it gets.
- Present a constant schedule of events.
It’s happening now
When Oppedahl recently compared notes with his counterparts in Raleigh, N.C., and Phoenix, cities that ignited major downtown turnarounds, their assessment was, “it will happen, but it will take 10 years.”
But Oppedahl doesn’t have 10 years. His tenure as economic development director runs out when Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry’s term runs out in December 2017. On the day of this interview, that was “65 weeks, four days and 1.5 hours.”
The current countdown until Gary Oppedahl leaves office.
Seventy-two hours before he took the job, if you’d asked Oppedahl if he thought he would end up working in city government, he probably would have said no. “Government generally defaults to the regulation paradigm.”
Which is his way of saying that government doesn’t move at the lightning speed of his other startups in the private sector – five companies including Health Care Services and Cell Robotics. Before that, he made his mark at Intel Corp., where he was part of the startup of Fab 7 at the Rio Rancho plant in the early 1980s.
But when Oppedahl saw he could create a city as a platform for inclusion, infrastructure and innovation, that was a different story. He took the job.
To illustrate how he sees his role, Oppedahl holds out his iPhone. “This is a platform, open API.” In the decade since the iPhone debuted, the device has gone way beyond the paradigm of phone.
“I cannot call my kids on this,” he said. “I can Slack them. It’s a productivity tool. It’s a geofencing tool. It’s a camera.”
That’s because everyone has contributed, and that’s how Oppedahl sees the economic development vision for Albuquerque in year three, which he calls “pivot and swarm” and which heads into the final year, which is “finish strong.”
Pivot, and learn
With a short runway, Oppedahl understands how the finite spurs innovative action. In an earlier interview from his office on the 11th floor of city hall in downtown Albuquerque, he and the mayor had just met with a contingent from The Millennial Trains Project, a crowd-funded transcontinental train journey that brings together diverse groups of young innovators. And just before he turned to a meeting with City Councilor Dan Lewis, he noted the clock. “They all know I’m stepping away in 69 weeks, 1 hour and 14 minutes.”
Success depends on agility, and that means pivoting. His main pivot: Listening to the community. During the Aug. 5 interview, what was most on his mind was ART, the Albuquerque Rapid Transit, the bus rapid transit plan for the Nob Hill-downtown corridor that follows the historic Route 66 that defines the Silicon66.com readership stretching from Oklahoma to Arizona, originating in Chicago and extending to Los Angeles.
Oppedahl calls ART “a streak of gold.” His vision is walkable neighborhoods and a magnet for private investment, but that’s not how some segments of the community saw it. Neighborhoods and business owners sought an injunction to halt construction. That injunction was lifted Aug. 19 through an order by the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, with construction starting the week of Aug. 29.
The $119 million project would create a nine-mile network of bus-only lanes and bus stations in the middle of Central Avenue, between Louisiana and Coors.
Though the project got the green light with a 7-2 council vote earlier this year, it hit a hurdle with the injunction.
Time to pivot, Oppedahl said. He knew when he took the position that he’d have to find the limitations of a governmental system that didn’t think like an entrepreneurial system. So he decided: “I’m going to learn about the system by pushing on it.”
Oppedahl turned to open space meeting technology to create forums for listening to business owners and neighborhood residents. Meetings have been held at libraries, schools, churches and community centers. That method got more people into the conversation about their vision for the Nob Hill-downtown corridor.
“It’s the definition of community ownership,” he said.
The biggest pivot of all
His biggest pivot may be on the horizon. He said his worst entrepreneurial moments are when he encounters the scarcity mentality, the deeply entrenched belief that New Mexico can’t become an environment rich in technology, innovation and money — the sentiment that “I’ll believe it when I see it.”
Too often he discovers a resistance to change, even when people voice they’re unhappy with the status quo. “It’s hard to explain,” he said. “It’s in the ether.”
His counter to that is “real change comes from you changing your behavior.” An ever-growing slate of entrepreneurial events aims to ignite more conversations so more people are part of the change.
Those events also target Albuquerque’s unique advantages, which he says go beyond the charm factor of Albuquerque – the 10-minute commute, the 300 days of sunshine, the lack of natural disasters such as earthquakes or tsunamis and the thriving arts culture and creative economy.
“The main thing that is so hidden is we have amazing thought leaders,” Oppedahl said. Actor Alan Alda visited recently and Oppedahl introduced him to a few thought leaders. “He’s like, ‘Holy crap!’”
But Oppedahl went on to rattle off a few more unmistakable advantages, all of which are more active and more prominent than before:
- Directed energy, the Star Wars initiative that was born here and related laser technology.
- Big data. “We’re one of the top five cities for big data and transparency models,” he said.
- Cybersecurity. “We guard the nation’s nuclear secrets here,” he said.
- Biosciences. “Our research in medical and biosciences is second to none.”
- Material science
- Relevant intelligence
- Intuitive visualization
- Revitalized manufacturing engineering. “We’ve got the software stuff. Now let’s look at hardware.”
And that’s not even touching the creative economy, of which Santa Fe-based interactive art exhibit Meow Wolf is one of the biggest success stories. That came out of Creative Startups, the only creative startup in the country, which he says plans to expand to other states and to Peru.
“The platform will live on,” he said. “We started all of this. Now the community owns it. But most importantly, the outcomes are owned by the community.”