Viewpoint -- Garage Dreams: Laying The Foundation For The Next HP

Dec. 21, 2004
Turning an old garage into a business incubator may spur an economic revitalization.

I have an old garage at the back of my lot. The white paint is peeling off like pieces of birch bark. Built 80 years ago, the sills rotted away long ago, as have the windows. When they fell out I covered the openings with plywood, which is now a streaked and weathered shade of gray. The overhead door has sagged off-center. When closed it leaves wide gaps all around, an open invitation to bats, chipmunks and their kinfolk. I don't dare put my car in there out of fear that it'll be trapped when the springs on the garage door give out, or stuffed full of acorns by the rodents as they lay up supplies for the winter. But like many Americans, I don't use the garage for my car anyway. It's full of other stuff. Stuff I will gladly do without when the roof caves in, like the lawnmower, rakes and shovels, a 20-foot ladder and a variety of furniture refinishing and other I'll-get-to-it-someday projects. I don't really know what's in there. I keep my golf clubs much closer at hand in the back of my car. A while ago I decided to tear down the old garage and build a new one. In preparation I searched around on the Internet and ordered some plans. (Even garage blueprints have names like Williston and Malibu.) My chosen design matches the style of my house with a sharply pitched roof, colonial trim and cedar shake siding. Standard features -- an overhead light and an automatic garage door opener -- would feel like luxuries to me. A friend of mine has a surround-sound audio system in her garage. That would really impress my neighbors. But why stop there? Like other industrial regions struggling to reinvent themselves, the metropolitan area in which I live is trying to figure out how to turn on the entrepreneurial spigot. With two world-class hospitals in the area, politicians have talked about becoming the next bio-pharmaceutical powerhouse, that or a major participant in the commercialization of fuel-cell technology. My new garage could be the start of an economic revitalization program, a veritable business incubator. In the spirit of "build it and they will come," I sketched in some additional lighting and electrical outlets galore onto the plans for my new garage. As it's currently laid out it would be at least twice as big, and much better equipped, as Dave Packard's rickety, one-car garage in Palo Alto, Calif., where he and William R. Hewlett first started tinkering about. Additionally, service lines run directly behind the building, making high-speed Internet access a snap. With the right incentives -- a direct line to the local venture capitalists and an espresso maker perhaps -- some bright entrepreneur with a bang-up idea might take refuge there. Maybe I could even get a government grant, or at least a tax abatement? It's now late August and I haven't started demolition yet. Life and the golf clubs in the back of my car got in the way. With winter around the corner, I've convinced myself that I should wait until at least next spring to do anything. The mice will sleep soundly through one more season of ice and snow. The local politicians have quieted down too. Revenue shortfalls have tempered tomorrow's dreams and focused everyone's attention on today's crises, on how they're going to reduce spending and what programs will have to be cut or trimmed back. In these times of retrenchment, if the local leaders had a big enough vision, and a great enough consensus to make something happen, now should really be the time for making plans, laying the foundation for future growth and tomorrow's companies. When the time comes, more conventional concerns just might win out for me as well. The new garage will be a place to keep the gardening tools, my son's rolling fleet of toys and maybe even the car. Still, the power outlets will be there, and I can just imagine how inspiring that surround-sound system would be. David Drickhamer is IndustryWeek's Editorial Research Director. He is based in Cleveland.

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