Evanston officials proclaimed the creation of a business “innovation corridor” Friday morning, as Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn announced a $1 million grant to bring high-speed internet along Chicago Avenue.
Quinn announced the “Gigabit Grant” during a press conference at the Evanston Public Library’s south branch location, 900 Chicago Ave. The money will go toward developing an ultra-fast internet network to support tech startups and entrepreneurship in the city and at Northwestern University.
“This is an investment in human beings,” Quinn said. “Having high-speed, having big connectivity and internet pipes that can really go fast, that can help us create new jobs, new businesses, new ideas and more connections bringing people together.”
Flanked by Evanston aldermen, State Rep. Robyn Gabel, Northwestern University President Morton Schapiro and students at Northwestern University, Quinn said the grant was part of his effort to keep jobs in Illinois.
“Do we want them going to Silicon Valley?” Quinn said, gesturing to the students behind him. “That’s a fine place to visit, but we want them staying right here in Evanston and Illinois to create apps that will help make life better in the 21st century.”
So far, two other gigabit grants have been announced. The governor awarded $1 million to a pilot program in the city of Aurora, designed to connect schools, healthcare institutions and businesses in underserved areas. A second, $2 million grant went to several south side Chicago communities near the University of Chicago.
Evanston originally applied for $2.5 million in funding, according to city network administrator Jonathan Madziarcyzyk. But city officials plan to leverage the $1 million grant to seek additional dollars from other sources.
Madziarcyzyk said the money will be used to build a broadband network that can transfer data at one gigabit per second. That’s about 10 times faster than some of the highest-speed internet offered to residential consumers, which tops out at about 100 megabits per second.
The network will connect Northwestern University to the intersection of Chicago Avenue and Main Street, and will be available to customers for a fee, according to Madziarcyzyk.
Ald. Melissa Wynne (1st Ward) described the grant as the first step toward creating an “innovation corridor” in the city of Evanston that would support the more than 160 tech startups in the city and spur further economic growth.
“Evanston’s goals for innovation and economic development are taking a huge leap forward today, and this will continue to elevate the status of this community as a great place to launch a business,” she said.
Northwestern President Morton Schapiro said the partnership between the city and the university would make both entities stronger, and stressed that the university cared about the community.
“We need to do an even better job supporting this fantastic city where we live and reside,” Schapiro said. “If we work together…and our entrepreneurs stay here, everybody will prosper.”
Several local business leaders were present at the event, including two with a vested interest in the Chicago Avenue corridor. Those were Eric Harper, founder of the business coworking space coLab, also located at 900 Chicago Ave., and John O’Donnell, president of O’Donnell Investments and the developer of a new office building going up at the southeast corner of Chicago Avenue and Main Street. Both said the new network would be a boon to business.
“At coLab Evanston, we work with some of the most innovative companies and entrepreneurs in the region,” Harper said. “High on the list of concerns for young companies is access to facilities with high bandwidth internet.”
Plans for exactly how the network will be set up have yet to be determined, according to city staff. But the goal is to create more than 400 access points beginning on the Northwestern University campus and stretching south down Chicago Avenue.
Also along the Chicago Avenue corridor, city staff have recently proposed creating a tax-increment financing district designed to spur business at the intersection of Chicago Avenue and Main Street, with a portion of that district stretching along Chicago Avenue from Dempster to Oakton streets. Aldermen are expected to vote on the proposed TIF district in the next few weeks.