Western Miami-Dade puts out welcome mat for drone industry

A drone flies at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
A drone flies at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. AP

Westward, ho? A Miami-Dade County group wants drone and robotics businesses to know there is a home for them in the western suburbs, and Miami Dade College is developing a new drone program to nurture future talent.

Many people may not equate Miami-Dade’s far western suburbs with high-tech, but a growing base of tech talent is developing there, said Miami-Dade County Commissioner Juan C. Zapata. He is leading an effort that includes businesses, Florida International University and MDC to declare an area around the Miami Executive Airport (formerly Tamiami) as the West End Innovation District, which will encompass a “drone and robotics hub.” The Miami-Dade Mayor’s Office is conducting a study on the concept this month, Zapata said.

Zapata’s legislation lays out the district as bounded by Southwest 112th Street to the north, Southwest 137th Avenue to the east, the CSX railroad tracks to the south and Southwest 157th Avenue to the west — an area falling between the neighborhoods of the Hammocks and Country Walk. It directs the county’s tax-funded Beacon Council, an economic-development agency, to promote the district as an “innovation hub.”

Zapata’s office chose the area because of its proximity to major economic drivers in the district (such as the the airport, FIU and Baptist Health), the existence of infrastructure suitable for shared work spaces (i.e. warehouses), the availability of land for future development, and the interest of Miami Dade College, Florida International University and the businesses in the area.

“We started looking at how we can attract more of these businesses and utilize the strengths the area has for developing those kinds of technologies. Right across from the airport is Beckman Coulter, which probably has one of the largest concentration of engineers. We also have the Alienware building that is getting reactivated,” said Zapata, noting that the area already hosts some beacon technology and medical device companies. “The connectivity with FIU is key moving forward. Having a major research university as a partner helps a great deal … and that is nothing but a positive for the community.”

An incentive package will help attract more companies to the innovation district, and the effort will include branding such as street signage, a logo and a website.

The building currently occupied by Alienware at 14591 SW 120 St. will be the future home of the West End Innovation Center. The building, listed in property records as 72,000 square feet, is owned by Joe Balerdi, one of the shareholders of privately held Alienware Corp. when it was sold to Dell in 2006.

“We envision great opportunities with local businesses and institutions. We are working towards creating a technology hub for research and development, internships and job creation boosting the economy in the west end of Miami Dade County,” said Balerdi, CEO of Topp Solutions.

For its part, Miami Dade College’s School of Aviation is seeing a frenzy of interest in drones. A number of initiatives are planned for the drone hub.

Through a federal grant, MDC bought drones for educational use. “We are going to be developing a number of credit courses. Eventually, we want to turn the credit courses into a certificate program, hopefully by the fall of 2016,” said Tom Jargiello, MDC’s Aviation School director. “In the same venue, we would also offer the courses as electives.”

MDC has applied for an FAA 333 exemption that allows commercial use of drones. It plans to offer its first noncredit course in June, which will be a familiarization course, without flights, but hopes to have FAA approval by the fall in time for its second course, with flights. The courses on drone technology, regulation and commercial utilization will be held at MDC’s facility at Miami Executive Airport, but the flights will be at another location (away from the airport). “We’re out there scouting for that right now.”

“The technology of drones is moving exponentially. It’s exploding with interest, it is definitely the up-and-coming technology … and is something that we clearly owe our students,” Jargiello said. MDC’s aviation school now has 560 students in four programs.

Zapata’s office was persuaded by a study released by the Brookings Institute in April 2014 that innovation districts — mixed-use geographic areas where educational institutions and larger tech companies cluster with startups, business incubators and accelerators — can be exceptional economic development tools. The report’s conclusion: “The rise of innovation districts aligns with the disruptive dynamics of our era and represents a clear path forward for cities and metropolitan areas. Local decision makers — elected officials and heads of large and small business companies, local universities, philanthropies, community colleges, neighborhood councils and business chambers — would be wise to unleash them.”

A recent economic development study completed by FIU for the innovation district working group found that the west end is home to the county’s largest portion of the regional labor force, and the labor force there has significantly higher income and is more educated than the county as a whole. However, the area also has a significantly lower concentration of businesses in the sectors matched to its workforce, forcing employees into long commutes. Baptist and FIU both have room to grow, and the airport is surrounded by vacant land “ideally suited for air transport, manufacturing, research and avionics businesses.”

The report recommended repurposing warehouses in the area into co-working spaces for telecommuters and entrepreneurs, as well as incubators and accelerators. It also recommended high-speed Internet and data service for the district.

Overall, the county’s information technology sector is small but growing, with 1,583 companies and 8,367 jobs generated with a $97,314 average salary, according to Beacon Council figures. The drone sector is too new to have specific data, said Jaap Donath, Beacon Council’s senior vice president of Research & Strategic Planning. “We work with all these partners to make sure we see the opportunities, and whether we have companies locally that are interested in growing ... or coming from somewhere else, we help them in the best way possible.”

Zapata thinks the west end should play a bigger role in the IT economy going forward: “We are working to create something unique that will help create critical mass, enhance what we already have there and kick-start the economic development potential of the area, which the county has neglected for years. We’re pretty positive about the prospects.”

Follow Nancy Dahlberg on Twitter @ndahlberg. Miami Herald staff writer Douglas Hanks contributed to this report.

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