In 2015, City Councillor Dave Lane wrote a column in The Overcast proposing that St. John’s transform some of its vacant buildings into “arts and innovation hubs.” The column got a hugely positive response and today the project is on its way to becoming a reality.
“I saw an opportunity because there were vacant buildings in the city and there are probably more now,” Lane said. “It’s intended to be a creative complex, a space that can bring together as many self-starters as possible to work on what they’re passionate about, while also bumping into other people who are passionate about what they’re doing, even if it’s not related.”
Modeled after Common Ground Coworking, the innovation hub would offer affordable multi-purpose space to start-ups, non-profits, small businesses, and artists.
People interested in using the space would pay a membership fee, or a daily rental fee, that gives them access to the space along with some perks like Wi-Fi and a communal coffee station. Eventually Lane hopes to have five interconnected buildings filled with people with arts, business, and social justice backgrounds working side by side.
“We’re taking a non-traditional approach to commercial development … we are interested in creating shared space,” Lane explained. “So you might rent an office but what you’re probably going to be doing is working in an office alongside a lot of other people who are doing different things. There will also be other spaces that could be used for meetings or rehearsals.”
After seeing the column, CBRE (the company that does leasing for Slate Asset Management) reached out to Lane to talk about the possibility of using their buildings.
With CBRE on board, Lane contacted his friend, architect Grant Genova to discuss a vision for the project. Finally he approached Common Ground Coworking who were excited to enter into a partnership with the goal of bringing the project to life. Together, the group secured funding to do a trial run called a feasibility study.
Right now the feasibility study is taking place on a floor of the Fortis Building and in the Neal Building on Harbour Drive. Several start-ups, businesses, non-profits and artists are working out of these buildings until mid-September.
During the study, Sequence Bio, TrajectorE Management, Optimized Insurance, and a restaurant owner are working in individual offices in the Fortis Building. While the Refugee Immigrant Advisory Council, and Business and Arts NL’s Pop Up Arts Space are using rooms in the Neal Building.
“We have people working in there to inform how we might operate these five buildings. We’re learning what the challenges and requirements might be,” Lane said. “We’re collecting data but at the same time we’re allowing these organizations to do what they do best and do an even better job at it.”
Lane is hoping that the feasibility study will help the group understand both the financial and design requirements of running the operation. He aims to slowly and organically establish the program in these buildings, so that the businesses and organizations using these spaces now will be able to continue working there when the feasibility study ends.
“The vision is to eventually have a complex of interconnected buildings where you have multiple sectors with individuals who are very excited about what they’re doing, running into each other and presumably sharing their energy with each other,” Lane said.