Cortex practices high-tech job creation

Cortex practices high-tech job creation

CENTRAL WEST END – On a recent Friday, Will Farrell wore a Hawaiian shirt and stood next to a raised surface where he’d placed his computer. Close by was a larger screen with lines full of what seemed to be nonsensical letters and numbers. On the wall of the third-floor office where he worked was a wall partially covered with faux brick.

It was hardly the old-time office, filed with men wearing white shirts and skinny ties. But Farrell does a job nobody could do in any office in days gone by, in a work environment nobody could imagine in the years past.

Farrell’s company is one of more than 400 high-tech firms in the exploding Cortex Innovation Community in the city’s central corridor. Cortex promises to grow from about 6,000 jobs today to more than 600 companies with 15,000 jobs when it’s done.

One of the holders of those 6,000 jobs, Ferrell spends his days working for 1904labs, a fast-growing computer consulting company situated at 20 South Sarah Street at Forest Park Avenue. Since it started on April 1, 2016, it has grown from about 15 employees to about 80 today. From 1,300 square feet in the same building, it’s expected to occupy about 14,000 square feet by the end of the year.

The firm helps large companies solve very difficult technical problems, said Sean Walsh, the company’s managing director and co-founder. In one recently concluded project, 1904labs created software to allow doctors and nurses to deal with recently discharged patients without coming into the office. The software was developed for Mercy Virtual Care Center, a part of Mercy Health System.

Being part of the Cortex Innovation District helps the company’s success, Walsh said.

“There’s just an energy down here,” he said. “We want to attract the most innovative people in St. Louis to work for us.”

Cortex got its start in 2002 as a partnership of Washington University in St. Louis, BJC Healthcare, the University of Missouri-St. Louis, St. Louis University and the Missouri Botanical Garden. The general boundaries of the district are Forest Park Avenue on the north, Interstate 64 on the south, Vandeventer Avenue on the east and Newstead Avenue on the west.  

The man most responsible for the district’s growth in recent years has been its president and CEO, Dennis Lower. He started in 2010, at a time when it was easy to see how much development it needed. 

Someone else will have to do that work soon, because Lower has announced that he’ll be leaving Cortex at the end of the year. A CEO search committee named by the Cortex Board of Directors will soon select a firm to do a national search. Lower said he planned to keep living here and do innovation district consulting.

Lower said he had seen big changes in the district since he came.

“The old sidewalks were cracked,” he said. “When you drove through this area, it was one of those areas where you would lock the doors.” 

Part of the growth has come as the result of tax increment financing, in which some or all of the new taxes from a development go to developers as incentives or for infrastructure. St. Louis has designated $167.7 million for the Cortex project, to be allocated as needs arise for projects. Of that, $100.7 million is for developers and $67 million for infrastructure such as utilities, streets and parking structures and parks.

TIF funding is needed when demand is weak, Lower said. But slowly, as the interest picked up, the need went down, he said. It’s been cut so much that the planned Aloft Hotel at 4245 Duncan Avenue and a $115 million building at 4210 Duncan will require only about $5.2 million in funding for an adjacent garage. It will be owned by Cortex.

“We are now with this building close to Clayton lease rate prices,” Lower said. “We’re 80-90 percent of where we need to be right now before total private sector development will need to take over.”

Some people say that the TIF money is coming out of taxes for school districts, streets, police and other local needs. But Lower contends that the state and local governments received an additional $40 million of new taxes they wouldn’t have gotten otherwise over the past five years. Of that, half went to the state and half to local governments.   

“The schools are getting more money than they would have gotten before,” Lower said. The St. Louis Public Schools received $7 million more than they would have otherwise, he said.

All that may be great for the well-to-do, but what happens above the Delmar Divide?

Lower said Cortex was working on initiatives to drive diversity.

Seventeenth Ward Alderman Joe Roddy, who represents the area that includes Cortex, mentioned several of them at the July 12 meeting of the Board of Aldermen. At that meeting, aldermen took final action on approving the $5.2 million in TIF funding for the building at 4210 Duncan.

“I’ve found over long years down here that when you begin creating energy and begin having things happen, all kinds of wonderful things happen,” Roddy said.

One of the things Roddy mentioned that benefits the area north of the Delmar Boulevard is LaunchCode, a training program that focuses on educating people to be computer coders. It’s situated at 4811 Delmar. 

Another project north of Delmar that grew out of Cortex is the MADE Makerspace at 5127 Delmar. It’s a place where budding entrepreneurs can get training in skills such as 3-D printing.

“If you’re a backyard garage inventor type, and you want to go ahead and develop a prototype, that’s what MADE’s all about,” Roddy said. “You show up there, you pay a fee, and that entitles you to use their equipment.”

On the second floor of MADE is The Magic House @ MADE, a children’s makerspace featuring programs similar to what the Magic House has at its main facility at 516 South Kirkwood Road.

“They have come to the city, and they are now at a location north of Delmar,” Roddy said. “That would not have been possible had it not been for Cortex and the philanthropy that has sprung up around some of the activities of Cortex.”

Cortex also has been a significant supplier of area jobs, Roddy said. He noted that by the end of the year, Square would employ 800 people at Cortex. 

“Square didn’t exist a few years ago when Cortex was founded,” Roddy said. “There’s a new business not only for Cortex, but for the entire St. Louis area.”