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SEPT. 21 FOCUS: Information Technology

Photo shows a construction site with a chain link fence around it. A gray building with multiple windows is being built at left and a gray building with fewer apparent windows is being built at right. Workers are walking through the site, which has gravel, a dirt pile, construction equipment and a purple trash bin.
The Charleston Tech Center is set to open in the fourth quarter or early next year. The site has room for another building if needed. (Photo/Andy Owens)
Charleston Tech Center rising with glass, steel, collaboration

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By Andy Owens

With work crews, dump trucks and project managers focused on raising the Charleston Tech Center over Morrison Drive, the Charleston Digital Corridor and its partners are focused on setting the organization’s future agenda.

In the past, that has included creating infrastructure and finding enough affordable, short-term commercial space for small, high-growth, early stage companies to find a place to plant and grow in the Charleston market.

The 92,000-square-foot, six-story building with a parking garage, a blanket of high-speed Wi-Fi, green space, restaurant and retail space, and room to grow takes care of many infrastructure needs. Now, Ernest Andrade, executive director of the Charleston Digital Corridor, said the organization wants to focus on two specific areas that need attention: talent and diversity.

Both have always been a concern of the digital corridor, Andrade said, but those two vital components of the tech sector have been elusive. He said a lot of attention was required for developing commercial real estate assets to give companies a place to be, especially in a market like Charleston. The Charleston Tech Center allows the corridor to now shift.

“What the building represents is a very tangible culmination of a lot of work that’s gone into building this community,” Andrade said. “Now what are we starting to focus on? A key piece of infrastructure has been taken care of. Now we start to focus on talent.”

Andrade said that includes looking at the demographics of the community — and not just of the Charleston region, but the tech sector itself: where it is going to be in the next 10 years and how to pull in companies that represent a broader segment of people. Andrade said he wants the tech economy to start to look more like the demographics of the community.

“Who got left behind and what are we doing to address it? I want the tech community to look a lot more like the underrepresented,” he said. “I have been working on this for five years.”

Image shows a gray building with three windows at the left and three open areas in the middle. A man in construction gear is in the middle opening.
The Charleston Tech Center is 92,000 square feet on six floors, including restaurants and retail. The approach will allow early stage and more developed companies to “grow in place,” developers say. (Photo/Andy Owens)

Andrade said the next step is to engage leaders, companies and entrepreneurs to find out where the need and opportunity exist, but he’s certain that can be accomplished. For example, he said the defense industry, which intersects directly with the tech sector, often provides incentives to accelerate diversity in the companies it deals with.

“At the end of the day, the difference about any conversation that happens in the tech center is that we will act to address those conversations,” Andrade said. “Not look over our shoulder at the next conversation. I don’t make any apologies that we’re not on the top circuit all over the place, not on 50 Zoom calls trying to recruit. We’re just trying to create the right environment so that it will be more inclusive.”

The tech center

First there was the Flagship, then there was the Flagship 2, then more and more commercial property came under the purview of the Charleston Digital Corridor. But as the effort grew, that fragmented approach to commercial real estate made less and less sense.

John Hand, managing partner for Iron Bridge Capital Partners, said the Charleston Tech Center wanted to build on the model by providing a place for existing companies to grow and continue to mentor others, instead of moving on to bigger space outside of the community.

Iron Bridge is the private equity real estate investment and development firm serving as the lead developer for the Charleston Tech Center.

“We’re not just another office building,” Hand said. “This was started as the permanent home for the Charleston Digital Corridor. We want one building where tenants can grow in place. We want to keep the companies and jobs as long as we can downtown.”

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The building and parking garage are quickly becoming a campus on Morrison Drive. The building, which features glass and an open-air rooftop access, is on 1.85 acres, but even after the center and a parking garage are finished, there’s room for a second building when the economics warrant an expansion.

Hand said the project has been moving on schedule during the coronavirus pandemic, and the developers hope to deliver the building by the fourth quarter or sometime in January.

“We feel real fortunate in this business environment to be where we are,” Hand said. “We’re still on track, which again is a positive. I think it speaks to the location and culture of the building we’re trying to create.”

Hand said leases are at about 50%, including attracting Insight Global, a national tech recruiting firm that is taking 6,000 square feet of the tech center. Andrade said Insight Global was a critical part of bringing together the talent pool.

“We wanted this building to be attractive to companies who are operating internationally to come in,” Andrade said. “If you want to hire 100 people, then you need somebody like Insight Global. They have corporate relationships with companies that can influence where companies locate. They essentially become a comrade-in-arms in your cause.”

Reach Andy Owens at 843-849-3142.

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