There’s a cool citizen-driven project on Facebook called “Vacant St. John’s: A Photo Essay” that’s basically cataloguing all of the empty buildings around town.

While it’s a little scary to see so much unused space in our City while it continues to sprawl, it’s exciting because it gives us a clear sense of our opportunities to do cool stuff.

With a little bit of collaboration and vision, I think we can grab a couple of those buildings and turn them into lean, mean, placemaking machines.

Here’s what I’m talking about: let’s take advantage of the true benefits of heritage restoration and transform an old building(s) into a thriving arts and innovation space.

As part of its Strategic Economic Roadmap 2021, St. John’s has a visionary goal to become a “leading Canadian artistic metropolis.” It’s a smart goal because we already have a rich creative culture that attracts cool, intelligent people who want to create and experience great things.

Basically when you have a place that is constantly doing awesome stuff, people want to visit, and the people living there are happy and more productive. Thus, you get impressive economic vibrancy and sustainability.

A new public arts and innovation space could embody this goal by providing a place for artists and small business owners to meet, work, share, and produce. There’d be hyperlocal synergies and paradigm shifts being leveraged like crazy!

How can we achieve this? It’s tempting to rely on The Market to meet this challenge by responding to the boon such a space could be. But that’s unlikely as the benefits of this type of development are external—the funder takes the risk but the broader economy gets the prize.

Can the government take this on? They definitely have a role to play here because it has a clear public benefit. But it’s a huge project with heavy upfront costs, and taxpayer-funded budgets don’t often allow for such an endeavour.

The solution, then, is probably somewhere in the middle. I suggest we collaborate. Imagine a team approach whereby the City of St. John’s expropriates a building and the Provincial government tosses in some funds for this major economic development initiative.

Add an arts collective to spearhead the design requirements along with architects and a startup-focused group like Common Ground who have experience with shared workspace creation. Then find a great developer to manage the project and build the structure.

The end result would be a fully restored and enhanced (heritage?) building that our entire community can huddle around and make sparks fly. Sprinkle in a few local commercial retailers along the streetfront and you’ve got yourself a stew going!

This is the opportunity our City has been waiting for. It would solidify us as a creative capital, foster an economy centred around the ever-renewing arts industry, and make this place an even more exciting place to live and work.

The question is … which derelict building should be the star of the show?