A standing room only crowd packed an auditorium Thursday night for "The Emergence of Silicon Beach" town hall meeting in Venice that focused on the impact of high-tech companies moving into beach cities along the Santa Monica Bay.
The town hall featured a showcase of more than 20 technology companies followed by a panel discussion moderated by Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl that touched on topics ranging from Venice's homeless population to free Wi-Fi to gentrification and concluded with a question-and-answer period with the audience.
A long line stretched outside the auditorium of Westminster Avenue Elementary School and extra chairs were unfolded for the roughly 400 people who attended the event sponsored by the Venice Neighborhood Council and the Venice Chamber of Commerce. The showcase featured companies ranging from Santa Monica-based Demand Media to Internet giant Google, which recently moved offices from Santa Monica to Venice. Verizon Wireless set up the room with free WiFi using their high-speed mobile 4G LTE hotspot.
Rosendahl said he had never seen so many people in the school's auditorium, which previously has drawn large crowds for town halls and Venice Neighborhood Council meetings dealing with homeless issues.
The over-arching theme of the Silicon Beach town hall meeting centered on how the burgeoning high-tech scene might alter Venice, with some voicing concerns that the community could lose its bohemian identity and eclectic creativity due to the influx of the digitally-driven newcomers.
James Citron, CEO and co-founder of Venice-based mobile video company Mogreet, said during the panel discussion that he decided to base the company here for good reason.
"There is no place in the world that people don't know Venice," Citron said. "Venice is this cultural icon. If you think about everything that has been innovated in Venice, from Dog Town to movie production. We said let's put Mogreet at that epicenter and let's start a company in Venice Beach."
Citron said Mogreet has been in Venice for nearly 5 years, has grown to 40 employees who mostly bike to work and the company is "probably the largest consumer of bagels and cereal at Flake and I'm the mayor of Rose Cafe on Foursquare."
"We are under the age of Venaissance," Citron said in reference to the European Renaissance of the 14th-17th centuries, echoing an earlier characterization by Rosendahl.
Other panelists included Thomas Williams, senior site and engineering director of Google Los Angeles; Jeff Solomon, executive director and co-founder of startup accelerator Amplify and JJ Aguhob, the president and co-founder of mobile social video company Viddy.
Williams said Google has about 490 employees at its offices in the Frank Gehry-designed Binoculars Building. More than 150 Google employees have opted out of underground parking and most of them ride bikes to work. Google recently met with the Los Angeles Department of Transportation and is looking to support bike route information in Google maps, Williams said.
Google also has become a supporter of the annual Venice Art Walk & Auctions and local artists are displayed in the company's internal art galleries. In addition, Google aspires to be a "tech hub" where experts can give talks internally among tech companies, Williams said.
On the subject of gentrification, Rosendahl asked for the panel's reaction.
Aguhob said he loves Venice's creativity, talent and energy and that would be the one thing he would fear losing if an influx of high-tech money came in.
Solomon said change occurs, but that it shouldn't be feared.
"People will change but the underlying philosophy and culture will remain the same," Solomon said.
In regards to gentrification, Citron said in the past five years he's noticed that local small businesses are thriving.
Some local businesses have seen a boost. For example, a group of workers at Digital Domain heads to Hinano Cafe on most Friday afternoons and orders pitchers of Stella Artois beer and bunches of the best burgers in Venice. On the flip side, the $2 cup of coffee is becoming nearly extinct in Venice as wallets and tastes expand.
Williams noted that he never lived in Silicon Valley during the dot-com heyday of the 1990s and was "kind of sad during the bubble when Silicon Valley moved to San Francisco."
"They didn't move to San Francisco necessarily because they wanted to appreciate San Francisco for what it was. I'm not saying that's what's happening here now," Williams said. "But they moved to change it into something they liked or something they wanted. So, I think we have to be careful about the things that make Venice special here and that the people we hire respect those things and want them to persevere."
The homeless issue proved to be an understandably complex one and the panelists didn't offer any quick solutions. Williams said that Google has been working with St. Joseph Center and was open to helping provide email and voicemail to help the homeless stay connected. Solomon said he would look into ways to donate leftover food from events.
Aguhob said that high-tech companies should engage in open dialog over the issue and help those who want to transition into permanent housing by providing the tools to assist them.
During the question-and-answer period, which was dominated by long-winded statements and pitches, the panelists said they'd participate in efforts to expand free Wi-Fi in Venice.
(Editor's Note: Updated to CORRECT that Google supports the annual Venice Art Walk & Auctions instead of the monthly Art Walk.)