Going All In On New Haven’s Future
‘Disrupters’ get a home of their own
by JACK KRAMER / photography by STAN GODLEWSKI
Spend a few minutes with David Salinas and you quickly find out there is no bigger cheerleader for Connecticut and New Haven than the former CEO and founder of marketing firm Digital Surgeons.
These days Salinas is plowing full-speed ahead on his much bigger, pet project – District New Haven – the 195,000-square-foot, $20 million technology incubator center under way at the former CTtransit bus depot at 470 James Street.
Some contract, weather and remediation issues have put Salinas a bit behind the original completion date target he first presented to eager-to-hear New Haven and state officials nearly three years ago. Back then, he said he hoped to be fully completed by 2017. Now, he concedes, he’s a year or so behind that schedule.
But in the meantime there is plenty happening at District. Digital Surgeons occupies space in the complex as does CrossFit New Haven, which is owned by Salinas’ partner in District, Eric O’Brien. A computer development company and a school of finance also have leased space.
And those businesses will soon have even more company.
The story of how District came to be is pretty simple: When Salinas and Digital Surgeons co-founder Peter Sena saw the old bus garage, both had visions of a Silicon Valley tech-style business hub dancing in their heads.
That vision turned into reality quickly as both Digital Surgeons’ and CrossFit’s old leases at nearby 1175 State St. were expiring at about the same time the James Street bus complex caught the eyes of the entrepreneurs.
From there, the plan “to invent a business model that didn’t exist anywhere else,” in the words of Salinas, started to take shape.
That model, Salinas says, “had plenty of doubters when we first started talking about it. In fact, many people had no problem telling me right to my face that it would never work. But I never doubted it would.”
On a recent day, Salinas gave visitors a tour of the building, taking time to further explain the vision, the progress made so far, and what the future holds.
“We are at more than 75 percent leased,” says Salinas, adding that word-of-mouth is attracting potential clients to contact him. “Mostly, people are finding us. This is something very new, never seen before in New England. There’s a lot of excitement about the project.”
One of those happy to be at District is SphereGen, a company that specializes in data integration for clients’ business needs.
“We are excited to be at District,” says Ted Dinsmore, director of sales for SphereGen. “The combination of the high-tech look and feel with the amazing workout facilities gives us an advantage to recruit and retain our great, exciting employees.”
Dinsmore adds: “The advantages District provides us [are] we have enough space in our space to do videos, and in the studio we can do amazing videos without outside production costs.”
When asked what the complex will be like a few years down the road, Salinas doesn’t hesitate to answer.
“We should be at north of 100 businesses operating by then,” Salinas says confidently, adding they will bring with them several hundred jobs.
The partners are putting $16 million into the project while the state contributed $6 million for environmental cleanup of the petroleum left underground by CTtransit.
Some features include: office spaces, an athletic club, 240 free parking spaces, media space, a 4,000-square-foot courtyard, tennis courts, a kayak launch to the Mill River, a 300-seat outdoor amphitheater, a 5,000-square-foot incubator for startup collaboration, and a 6,500-square-foot brewery slated to open sometime this summer.
Salinas, 38, stepped down from his role as CEO of Digital Surgeons about a year ago to focus solely on District. A business graduate of the University of Bridgeport, he grew up in Queens, New York, but talks about New Haven as if he grew up in the Elm City.
“Spending time in New Haven, in Connecticut, I just fell in love with the state, fell in love with the area,” he explains. “What’s really attractive to me about New Haven is it felt a little like home: just urban enough but also had the charm and the food, and the location and the people.”
As much as he loves New Haven, the feeling appears to be mutual about him – and District.
“What amounts to recycling of this brownfields parcel makes good use of an existing structure, helped the state repurpose an obsolete asset, and returns improved property to New Haven’s Grand List,” Mayor Toni N. Harp says.
“The project also underscores how my administration has embraced the technology sector to make New Haven synonymous with digital innovation, creativity, and expansion. District is a vital cog in the city’s emerging role as a technology hub,” Harp says.
Salinas says Connecticut needs to get over its inferiority complex. He says it can start by dumping the saying that many people know the state by: “The land of steady habits.”
“Politically and economically the state has its woes,” he acknowledges. But then he quickly adds: “If you look at New York 30 to 40 years ago, people said New York was over and done with. Boston was the same. Now take a look. Lo and behold, New York is back being the number one city in the world; it’s the Mecca. And Boston is growing leaps and bounds,” says Salinas, now on a roll.
“Dig a little further, what’s New York known for?” asks Salinas. “‘I Love New York,’” he says, answering his own question. “And, Boston: ‘Boston pride.’”
“Connecticut,” he grimaces: “The land of steady habits – aargh!”
“In the world of innovation, people don’t want to hear about steady; they want to hear about disruption,” Salinas says. “We need to ban that word ‘steady’ from Connecticut’s history books.”
He continues: “What Connecticut has is bad energy. I believe that energy, personally and professionally, is one of the most powerful things that can make or break people, businesses, cities and towns. All we have heard for the last year-and-a-half is that Connecticut is dying, kids are leaving, the rich are leaving, GE is leaving, the mass exodus. All that crap over and over again.”
Salinas brings his concerns to his business model for District, stating the first question he asks someone who is interested in leasing space at the site is, “Why?”
“How many real estate brokers ask that question?” Salinas asks, adding that most brokers are only concerned about the money aspect of it. “I ask it because I don’t want businesses that want to take advantage of the community or are just here for business development.”
Salinas says the businesses he’s looking for are “disrupters.”
“I want innovators, chance takers,” he says, “people who aren’t afraid to reinvent themselves and their businesses.”
Don’t get the impression that Salinas is just looking to court Millennial or techie-type businesses to District.
“Everyone is welcome, as long as they have something productive to give,” he says. He adds there will be plenty of businesses, but space will also be leased to freelancers, consultants, athletes, gyms – as long as they answer that “Why” question correctly.
As he walks around his building, Salinas explains how space is being constructed so that rooms can be converted to be used in multi-dimensional ways, shifting from traditional office conference rooms to cordoned-off smaller office work spots, depending on the needs of the day.
And, don’t forget that beer garden.
The riverfront beer garden and bakery will be run by Caseus Fromagerie & Bistro’s Jason Sobocinski, and the beer will be from the well-known Black Hog Brewing Company in Oxford, of which Sobocinski and his brother, Tom, are owners.
“That will be fun once it opens. It will be a drawing card for us, for sure,” Salinas says. “It’ll help spread the word about all the other great things that will be happening here.”