Innovation lab aims to breathe new life in rural town

Wed, 2014-08-06 06:00 -- Kevin Ebi

What was once one of the oldest integrated health centers in the United States will soon reopen as an innovation center designed to give life to some of the youngest businesses in all of California.

Tuolumne General Hospital opened in 1849, one of the first full-service, acute care centers in the country. It closed 158 years later as ever-growing numbers of people went to the much newer hospital for treatment.

The innovation lab is the highest profile project on the hospital grounds in Sonora since the hospital closed seven years ago. The area is known more for recreation than economic revitalization. Just 5,000 people live in Sonora. The town is a spur on a windy, two-lane road that leads to Yosemite National Park, an icon of the grand, granite peaks and open space of the American West.

“Generally you see products like this in more urban areas,” Economic Development Authority Director Larry Cope told MyMotherLode. “There are many in the Silicon Valley area, and some in the Los Angeles area. But from my research, there has never really been one, with what we combine, in a rural area of California, or in a rural area anywhere across the United States.”

The traditional role of rural places hasn’t stopped it before. The Tuolumne County Economic Development Authority’s motto is “where the outdoors meets your front door.”

Big city capabilities in a rural setting

Entrepreneurs who join the lab will have access to 3-D printers and modeling tools, an electronics lab, metal and wood shops, and gaming and application development computers. The advanced resources are available for as little as $59 per month.

In addition to the equipment and tools, the lab may also serve as a meeting ground where entrepreneurs working there will get a chance to interact and maybe work with other like-minded individuals.

The lab is backed by the county’s economic development authority as well as local businesses and foundations. They envision it as an ideal environment for hackers to work and develop breakthroughs that will eventually transcend the small city.

Jumpstarting a struggling economy

Over the past four years, Sonora has played a key role in cutting Tuolumne County’s unemployment rate in half, and the innovation lab is designed to help continue cutting it further.

In 2010, the county’s unemployment rate hit 15.5%. Now it is only slightly higher than the state average of 7.3%, and the city of Sonora itself actually matches the state figure.

Part of that success is the result of the city’s efforts to build up its own Old Town district. It’s also home to two theater companies. But it hopes the lab will generate new businesses that put it, and not just the Yosemite highway, on the map.

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