Louisville, Ky., has launched a new public workspace — one that combines free loaner laptops and fiber Internet connection with modern design aesthetics, the sort more closely associated with trendy coffee shops than government facilities. And it’s done so in an economically challenged neighborhood where people often lack access to tech.
A central aim of this space is to help foster entrepreneurial partnerships and economic growth in a section of the city facing significant obstacles. The workspace, dubbed the PNC Gigabit Experience Center, is located in the Louisville Central Community Centers' (LCCC) Old Walnut Street development, which is in the Russell neighborhood on the city’s west side.
“The growth of Louisville’s digital economy must be inclusive of all residents no matter their ZIP code — for the budding entrepreneurs and innovators of today and for the families of tomorrow,” said Mayor Greg Fischer in a release. “The PNC Gigabit Experience Center allows residents of Russell and the entire city [to] realize the potential that technology has for the future of our community and economy.”
Grace Simrall, Louisville’s chief of civic innovation, said some of the decisions that gave rise to this came after the president of the LCCC, Sam Watkins, bought the building and sought to turn it into an economic hub where a major company could locate a call center. Watkins' plans, however, were derailed by insufficient access to high-speed internet.
“What we’ve discovered is that the west end of Louisville really is a network connectivity desert,” Simrall said.
In fact, the neighborhood didn’t even have a place where residents could grab a coffee and hop onto Wi-Fi, whether it be to discuss potential business collaborations, apply for jobs or simply browse the Web. The PNC Gigabyte Experience Center seeks to rectify this dearth by providing higher connection speeds and loaner tech, in a space that feels both vibrant and productive.
The center, which opened May 10, currently has laptops available for free use and super-fast fiber Internet speeds. It opens at 9 a.m. Monday through Saturday, and stays open through the evening, except on Saturday, when it closes at 2 p.m.
The center also has three distinct areas for visitors to hang out, all replete with rented furniture. One is a living room-esque lounge, one has high-top tables with stools and the third features a casual café setup. Simrall said officials are collecting feedback on the aesthetic of each section as they prepare to build out the most popular choice with a significant investment in permanent furniture.
A local coffee shop, Heine Brothers', has volunteered to provide coffee every weekday morning through the end of May, and plans are in the works for a local catering company to move in and build the facilities needed to provide café offerings long term, an effort slated to be complete by December.
The entire initiative is a product of a collaboration between local government, the LCCC and community partners such as the center’s namesake, the philanthropic PNC Foundation. It’s happening in coordination with Vision Russell, a neighborhood redevelopment project, funded through a $29.5 million federal Choice Neighborhoods grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The PNC Gigabit Experience Center is part of Louisville’s recently announced digital inclusion strategy, the city's plan to remove technological barriers so that all citizens have the digital access, skills and hardware to get jobs, degrees and other services. Digital inclusion and equity is an increasingly prevalent concern for local governments, as this year cities across the country, including Louisville, recently participated in the first-ever Digital Inclusion Week.
The concept of combining trendy design for a government facility that gives citizens free access to tech and high-speed Internet, however, is one seemingly unique to Louisville. Many cities have shared workspace areas, both public and private-owned, but something that seeks to so closely re-create the experience of meeting a business partner in a hip coffee joint is a new one.
Simrall calls the sort of interactions that take place in these environments “engineered serendipity.”
“A lot of times when government gets involved, it’s very utilitarian,” Simrall said. “It was very important for us to design this space so it was beautiful and welcoming.”