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Changes ahead for Denton's technology incubator

Denton’s economic development staff is stepping in for the second time to manage the city’s technology incubator with the hope that their day-to-day involvement at Stoke is again temporary.

Last month, the Denton City Council pulled the plug on Stoke's management contract in hopes of containing costs. 

Stoke opened in August 2016 in a 9,000-square-foot office across the street from the police department. The project was first pitched to city leaders as a small economic development deal, but it got complicated fast. Without big changes, the city’s investment in the project was expected to exceed $2 million over the next few years.

Caroline Booth, Denton’s economic development director, told council members during a workshop Tuesday that she has put together a transition team to manage Stoke's daily affairs, started a search for new management, and met with Stoke’s current members to help smooth the transition.

“We’re managing all the little details that cannot slip through the cracks for the members,” Booth said.

Stoke has 38 individuals and startup companies that pay a monthly fee to be a part of the “co-working” space. Stoke provides high-speed internet and other amenities in a large office suite that encourages collaboration. In addition, Stoke links its members to business mentors and provides programming intended to help small companies grow.

On Tuesday morning, the city government issued a request for proposals for new management of Stoke. Since the council had voted to end outside management of the project, Mayor Chris Watts initially balked at that news. 

Booth encouraged the mayor and council members to remain open to ideas that could come in the proposals. She put together a team, including staff members from the library and information technology, to maintain Stoke’s programs. But that team didn’t have the expertise to run the program for the long term, she said.

Several individuals and entities had already approached the city about making a management proposal, including some who offered to completely take over the project, said City Manager Todd Hileman.

“We want to give everybody a shot to get their idea on the table,” Hileman said.

The proposals are due by Oct. 3. A large team from the city’s executive staff will evaluate the proposals for their viability. The evaluating team will also evaluate the financials of the companies making the proposals. If the staff and council agree the search brings a winning proposal, a new management team could be in place at Stoke by December, Booth said.

Council member Don Duff, a retired businessman who has started technology companies of his own, remained skeptical of the project.

But other council members commended the city staff for trying to make a smooth transition, since the current management, the Dallas Entrepreneur Center, wouldn’t stay through a transition.

The Dallas group hired Heather Gregory to run Stoke. Gregory is the daughter of City Council member Dalton Gregory. The nepotism clause in the city’s charter prevents Heather Gregory from being hired by the city to run Stoke as long as her father serves.

PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached by 940-566-6881.

In Other Action

During its regular meeting Tuesday, the Denton City Council also:

  • Authorized the city manager to execute certain agreements with utility customers who install large-scale renewable energy systems.

  • Approved an increase of sick leave accrual to 10 hours monthly for full-time, non-civil employees.

  • Awarded a $450 grant to Giving Hope Inc. for homeless prevention services.

  • Approved agreement with the Texas Department of Transportation to build a 10-foot wide path, suitable for both bicycle riders and walkers, along U.S. Highway 380 from Mayhill Road to the Greenbelt Park. The city’s portion of the project is about $878,875.

  • Approved a mutual aid agreement for Denton Municipal Electric to work with other electric utilities to recover from major weather or natural disaster emergencies.

  • Abolished the Downtown Reinvestment Fund, saying they will direct future applicants to the city’s downtown tax increment finance fund.