Fred Grimm: Miami’s niche in Internet age is party app for nouveau riche

08/09/2014 5:00 PM

09/12/2014 7:42 PM

Becoming Silicon Beach might be a problem.

Over the years, Silicon Beach has become the favorite sobriquet among civic boosters promising South Florida’s imminent transformation into “the next Silicon Valley.” Except we’ve got a bit of competition.

A cluster of towns around Los Angeles, including Santa Monica, Malibu and super-funky Venice Beach (figuring a perpetual waft of marijuana smoke might be just the thing to nurture techie dreams) started calling their collective selves Silicon Beach three decades ago. Australia also insists on branding its own tech hub Silicon Beach, but the California version with 500 tech start-ups and the annual Silicon Beach Fest would seem to have first dibs.

Sadly, other intriguing waterside variations have been snatched up by Silicon Valley wannabes. Silicon Shore is claimed by Santa Barbara. Santa Cruz calls itself Silicon Surf. Silicon Sandbar belongs to Cape Cod. Silicon Coast has been taken by Orange County, California. Norfolk has Silicon Anchor. Silicon Pier has gone to Brighton, England. Silicon Docks to Dublin. Birmingham (the one in England, not Alabama, which claims exclusive rights to Silicotton Valley) has been labeled Silicon Canal. Silicon Gulf? That would be Davao City in the Philippines. Silicon Lagoon has been taken by Lagos, the tech hub known mainly for cranking out millions of beseeching emails from mysterious Nigerian generals. Charleston, S.C., has Silicon Harbor. Gainesville beat us to Silicon Swamp.

Not that there seems to be any trademark restrictions on these designations. Silicon Prairie describes various would-be tech clusters around Kansas City, Omaha, Des Moines, Jackson Hole, Dallas or Minneapolis.

I’ve come across references to Silicon Snowfield, Silicon Shire, Silicon Glen, Silicon Walk, several Silicon Hills, Silicon Forest, Silicon Mountain, Silicon Slopes, Silicon Savannah, Silicon Mall, Silicon Mill, Silicon Gorge, Silicon Bayou, Silicon Alley, Silicon Border, Silicon Wadi, Silicon Shipyard. If we’re looking to steal something Miami-appropriate, I’d say we wouldn't have much trouble snagging Silicon Spa, now in the tenuous possession of Warwickshire, England.

Maybe the sheer number of all these silicon joints, so many places vying to be the “next Silicon Valley,” tells us that Miami (Silicon Hydrosphere? Silicon Intracoastal Waterway? Silicon Sinkhole? Silicon Thong?) is up against formidable competition. From everywhere. I found a 2013 story wondering why Sarasota, with such a sizable retirement community boasting “a brain trust of business experience,” couldn't become the next Silicon Valley.

I’m guessing Miami’s tech potential might be more promising than Sarasota, despite all those innovative retirees (Silicon Mausoleum). I’m guessing we might even have an edge on Canada’s Okanagan Valley in Canada, also known as Silicon Vineyard. The Miami Herald’s Nancy Dahlberg reported last week about a burst of collaborative workspaces both in Miami’s urban core and in Fort Lauderdale that cater to high-tech innovators and consultants and, hopefully, venture capitalists. Maybe these technology centers will send us on our way toward becoming, finally, the “next Silicon Valley,” which (according to the Herald archives) Miami boosters have been flogging since 1984.

But, gracious, the competition.

There was a time when Miami was, indeed, an international leader in computer applications — back in the 1990s, when the only entities making money off the Internet peddled online porn. That was us. XXX. Silicone Valley. Silicon Valley of the Dolls.

In 2003, Gov. Jeb Bush promised the next best thing to Silicon Valley — that South Florida would become a bio-tech hub. The state spent more than $272 million on incentives to entice the Scripps Research Institute to locate a research campus in Jupiter. We were promised thousands of high-tech bio-medical jobs.

The state’s Office of Policy Program Analysis and Accountability reported that by 2010 Scripps had hired just 377 employees. The state had spent $722,000 for each permanent job. Figure in the $200 million-plus that Palm Beach County spent to get Scripps, and the cost per worker gets closer to a million bucks. Which made Florida’s great tech venture more of a sump than a valley. Scripps, meanwhile, is limping along this year with a $21 million operating deficit. Betting big on high tech, as it turns out, is no sure thing.

The major problem with notions of replicating Silicon Valley in Miami or any of the wannabe places has to do with the actual Silicon Valley, which has become as much about acquisition as it is innovation. If some new nifty application gets spawned in Boston or Miami or Chandler, Arizona (aka Silicon Desert), one of the cash-laden tech giants in Northern California will simply buy it up, like some voracious shark devouring minnows.

But that’s where our particular innovative talents can shine. Those nerdy high-tech millionaires and billionaires need a place to play.

Last winter, Miami Beach Mayor Phil Levine was excoriated for suggesting that his town might not be suited to be the next Silicon Valley. “It's the dumbest idea in the world,” Levine said, infamously, at the U.S. Conference of Mayors in January. “People cling on to things that are not the highest and best use for their city. Miami Beach is never going to be a high-tech hub. As much as it sounds great, it’s sexy, that's not who we are.”

Levine was only being honest. Besides, Miami Beach is sexy in … well … a way different than San Jose.

Our niche in the silicon revolution became evident this week, when rumors were swirling around that a high-tech billionaire — perhaps Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of mighty Google — was building himself a very snazzy 9,455-square-foot mansion on one of Miami Beach’s Venetian Islands.

Now there’s a realistic strategy for South Florida in the Internet Age. If we can’t be the “next Silicon Valley,” we’ll just lure Silicon Valley, Silicon Beach, Silicon Tundra, and Silicon Ghetto high rollers to Miami, where they can flaunt their pasty white Googliness in teensy little Speedos. Where a red Ferrari 458 and a magnum of Louis Roederer Cristal 2002 make for a much more efficient dating algorithm than anything devised by match.com or eHarmony.

If these nouveau riche techies and coders and geeks can’t find their way to South Beach, we’ll provide a special how-to-party-when-money-is-no-obstacle app. It’s in development right here in the next Silicon Valley. Patent pending.

About Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm

@grimm_fred

Fred Grimm joined the Herald in 1976. Since 1991 he has written a column about crime, politics and life in Broward.

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