‘Innovation’ programming still taking shape for The Station

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The 7,700 square-foot municipal building under construction on Railway Street known as ‘The Station’ is being built as a multi-functional facility, home to municipal cashiers, transit services, community group space, and a visitor’s center.

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Another major component is the ‘innovation center’, intended to foster the growth of budding local businesses with unique ideas. While The Station and most of its functions are set to be up and running this summer, it will still be some time before full innovation center programming is implemented.

Plans for both the building and innovation center within were downsized since renderings of a much larger three-story building were first presented in 2019. COVID-19 arrived six months later, and by fall 2020 the town concluded they (and potential tenants) didn ‘ t have the appetite to fund a facility of that scale.

They landed on a one-story design instead. Given the transit component, about two-thirds of the project’s $ 4.85 million budget is funded through GreenTRIP, a joint initiative of the provincial and federal governments encouraging the development or improvement of local transit systems.

The town sought to leverage that grant funding to create space for other uses, including innovation. Original plans called for a business incubator that centered around the technology sector.

Cochrane was becoming an increasingly prominent locale in tech, with Garmin having recently welcomed hundreds of employees into their new Canadian headquarters in The Quarry, and other hardware or sensor-focused firms like mcThings and 4iiii also calling Cochrane home. The town was also making efforts to secure grants for upgraded internet infrastructure at the time.

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By 2021 however, it was concluded that the new space should serve ‘innovation’ in all industries, as opposed to solely technology.

Similar business incubator concepts exist in municipalities and institutions throughout Canada. While they vary in how they function, physical space is a key draw.

The idea is that if entrepreneurs (ones with a sound business plan) are able to save on rent in infancy the business will take off quicker, at which point they’ll be in a better position to rent their own place, hire more employees and contribute to the local economy.

“The premise is to create an agreement in which they are there for a short period of time, utilize the space for a given time in a given program, and then evacuate the space, hopefully out to a bigger space, a rented or leased area throughout the town, ”said Mike Korman, who leads the town’s economic development department.

“We really want to make sure that this is utilized to the best of its ability, but we don’t want to have campers. We don’t want to just have somebody plop in for a long period of time and then not see the benefits, and utilize the space appropriately. ”

Other elements of an ‘innovation center’ would likely include educational programming on business, access to necessary technology, and opportunities for networking to expand a business’ reach.

For much of the planning process, the town’s economic development department considered structuring and running the innovation program themselves. It didn’t make sense, they decided.

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“While administration researched how to do this, it quickly came to the realization through community conversations and research readings that the government’s role is to not create programming,” reads their April 19 council report.

“Government does play a very important foundational role supporting community innovation as they have the ability to provide the physical space. The government’s other roles are to create innovation-friendly development policies, funding business development through grants and most importantly promoting the entrepreneurial spirit of the community. ”

For programming they’ve formed Innovate Cochrane, which will serve as a non-profit functioning similar to Cochrane Tourism or the SLS Family Sports Center board. This new group will be responsible for conducting public engagement and determining a program framework.

“We need to find a way to bring together the community to talk about entrepreneurship, to find the stories, to understand who’s doing what and what are the needs,” said Korman of the group’s creation.

“And we would like them to help contribute in understanding what community-facing programming the Station should be doing, and how.”

Initially, Innovate Cochrane’s programming and engagement will take place on social media and through a space they’re setting up at the SLS Family Sports Center.

A ‘founder board’ will guide initial efforts over the first year or two, and “governance will evolve to match the emerging direction of Innovate Cochrane beyond that.”

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“We’re trying to bring those people together to say ‘what are your needs of the community, and how can this space facilitate that?’,” Korman said.

“You can’t do everything because it’s just a space, but what is the opportunity for creating a better ecosystem which has mentors, which has entrepreneurs, which has venture capitalists, which has angel investors, everybody coming together with sort of an idea of how they want to play within that world. ”

Construction of the full building is set to be completed this summer. Until a full program is in place the town says they plan on using the space through a combination of limited innovation programming and for other groups, potentially the library or other non-profits.

“But ultimately, we do know that we need some sort of residency program, whether it be an accelerator, an incubator, a makerspace, to provide businesses with a space to connect with others, build programming, provide mentorship, and that’s ultimately where we see this going, ”Korman noted.

Councilors who spoke following the April 19 presentation appeared to be in favor of the current blueprint for the innovation center.

“I just wanted to compliment you Mr. Korman on the way you’re handling the programming side…, build the infrastructure and and let the entrepreneurs lead, or let the community kind of develop the programming, more of a ‘hands off’, I like that, ”said councilor Patrick Wilson .

“It’ll be interesting to hear Q1, half a year, a year in, how things are going, what’s sticking, what’s resonating, what’s not working there, and I think we’ll have better answers at that point.”

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Added councilor Marni Fedeyko, “I think we’re all excited to see what’s going to come out of it, and the first part of the journey is just starting.”

Mayor Jeff Genung expressed confidence in the program working within a smaller-than-initially-planned space.

“We had to downsize with all of the world that it was when it was, but I’m really optimistic that we can prove a model in this small space and it can grow into something else,” said mayor Jeff Genung.

“Maybe by proving the model we’re actually proving to the community and to residents that this is a good thing, and show everybody what it is so when we do come back with a bigger plan someday in the future, that we’ll have buy-in from way more people. ”

Renderings of the upcoming building and photos of construction progress are available on ‘The Station’ page of Cochrane.ca.

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