“How’s my day? My day goes ZOOM! That’s how it is for me.” These are the opening words from San Leandro’s new Chief Innovation Officer, Deborah Acosta, an Oakland resident who is the co-founder of local technology group 2.Oakland, and who formerly worked for the city of Oakland as an Economic Development Specialist.
Acosta’s mission in San Leandro is to help the City government and local businesses to create a Silicon Valley-like center for innovation. Central to those efforts is a related project to bring wireless broadband Internet access to businesses and government offices in the form of “Lit San Leandro,” which Acosta is charged with building out more broadly across the city.
Lighting San Leandro up
Lit San Leandro was conceived by Dr. J. Patrick Kennedy, a San Leandro resident, and president and founder of OSIsoft, a high-tech employer in San Leandro, as a public-private partnership. Kennedy largely self-funded the project and required little investment by the city — except for some city staff time and efforts to promote use of the fiber network by businesses.
Today, the government of San Leandro gets free access to 10 percent of the huge bandwidth Kennedy installed. As of this summer, most of the wireless broadband loop is operational, and a new two-million-dollar federal grant will allow further expansion of the network out from the West Gate Mall to projects along the San Leandro shoreline. This will bring the running length to 15 miles.
The speed of this fiber optic network is 10 Gigabits per second, which is 100 times faster than the high-end 100 Megabit speed that Comcast offers. It is also over 1000 times faster than most DSL offerings. This is very, very fast and will enable new Internet businesses, health care institutions, schools, electronic government and as yet unimagined activities that need fast Internet speeds.
“What can we do with this space and this fiber? It’s only limited by your imagination and understanding of what you can do with the fast fiber. That’s why we are here. This space is in fact the seed for the future center of innovation here in San Leandro and for the East Bay as well,” is what Acosta says about the sprawling West Gate Mall.
The Mall, formerly a huge Chrysler assembly plant, was divided horizontally into 2 halves. The lower half was profitably used for retail stores for decades while the upper half — an area bigger than 6 football fields — has been only partly used for offices and a winery. Part of Acosta’s job now is to make sure that space, with lease rates of 50 to 80 cents a square foot, is rented and used.
Acosta says, “My goal is to build a center of innovation here and an eco-system to support it, and people are welcome to explore it.”
Acosta noted that San Leandro is becoming as diverse as Oakland, with a larger percentage of Hispanics and over 12 percent of the population now being African-American. “So it’s not that we don’t have diversity here,” Acosta added. “But because of the legacy of discrimination in San Leandro, part of our challenge is to work to overcome the digital divide and engage a diverse community.”
The Oakland link
“Now we see ourselves in San Leandro as being leaders in developing a model of public-private partnerships that could be replicated in other cities. Each city has its own individual and unique assets, so we can use that to create robust innovation in our individual cities,” Acosta said.
“For example, we hosted an event, ‘Creating the 10-Gigabit City,’ in our main library, and we invited all the cities in Northern California to try to develop a road map so they also could develop their own plans for high speed broadband. It was a pretty good first effort and we had representatives from Oakland, Brentwood, Emeryville, Hayward, Sacramento, County of Alameda, and others. So Oakland reps came, and now they just passed a resolution to do the same thing in Oakland,” she adds.
The project Acosta references, dubbed Light Up Oakland, is actually run by two non-Oakland companies, Pacific Thomas Capital, run by Randall Whitney, and Lit San Leandro.
Whitney is also the president of Safe Storage Management Company, which operates storage units in the Fruitvale area. He helped propose the Oakland fiber project with Acosta and others back in 2004, which pre-dates Lit San Leandro. According to Whitney, the long delay in getting the project supported and funded was due to “…Oakland politics. The politicians would say something else was more important at the time. They’ve recently recognized the role Pat Kennedy played in San Leandro and now see the high speed fiber project [in Oakland]as urgent…”
Acosta puts things in a broader and more philosophically context, “We need Oakland to succeed because as it succeeds, we all do much better. And as Oakland fails, we all are held back. So we need Oakland to become the robust economy we know it can be. “
Acosta refers back to her work at the City of Oakland, where she shepherded a BTOP grant proposal for a high-speed fiber loop in Oakland. “We spent a lot of time doing research, but we didn’t get the grant. On the heels of that, I was assigned to public-private partnerships and other ways of achieving that because Oakland had lot of conduit available [for running fiber]. I left in June of 2011 without being successful and became a consultant for a few years. And then this job came along in San Leandro and it was exactly what I wanted to do in Oakland.”
Still an Oaklander in her heart, Acosta resides in the Jack London area after years of living in East Oakland but is about to move to San Leandro.
Urban Innovation Exchange COO Gregory Delaune is already a fan of Acosta’s work. “As one only a handful of municipal Chief Innovation Officers in the country, Debbie is emblematic of a new wave of civic innovation and public-private partnership models that is sweeping across the nation…. Debbie is perfectly positioned to tap into the regional and global network of thought leaders, entrepreneurs, and investors that can take advantage of what San Leandro has to offer.”
Patrick Hurley, who co-founded 2.Oakland with Acosta, described her as “…indefatigable and committed in a very ‘roll up your shirt sleeves’ way. We had some lofty goals for 2.Oak and a very small band of volunteers to help bring them to fruition. Deb was one of the prime movers in getting things done. Deb is definitely wired into the network of Bay Area decision makers.”
Steve Snider, District Manager for the Downtown Oakland and Lake Merritt-Uptown District Associations, is one of the Oaklanders who was sad to see Acosta go, “I have known Debbie for years and have always enjoyed working with her. She is exceptionally talented,” he says. “Debbie was the driving force behind the 2.Oakland efforts. Oakland’s loss is certainly San Leandro’s gain.”
An album of photos featuring Deborah Acosta and the West Gate Business Center can be found here.