Community Futures Releases Feasibility Study on North Okanagan Innovation Centre and Maker Space

Salmon Arm has one, and Nelson, BC is about to get one. The Innovation Centre, work-share, and maker-space concept is gaining traction all over BC, with numerous Innovation Centres opening throughout the province.

The idea has gained interest from the North Okanagan business, technological and creative community, as was seen when Community Futures North Okanagan (CFNO) hosted a presentation on the North Okanagan Innovation Centre and Maker Space Concept, Aug. 28.

A full house listened as consultants Angela Tu Weissenberger and Rose Hoeher presented their preliminary findings from a feasibility study they conducted with local stakeholders.

Commissioned by CFNO and the City of Vernon, the study showed that a local Innovation Centre and Maker Space could impact 14,000 entrepreneurs and businesses as well as 342 tech companies, and 277 makers and artists.

“The Vernon area and the North Okanagan have so many rich assets,” says Tu Weissenberger, an economist with a finance background who has worked on a number of projects around Canada. “It’s almost a hidden community, with numerous residents working remotely, and these assets need to be networked and brought together. There is already a thriving innovation ecosystem. It just needs to be connected.”

While an Innovation Centre is described as a place that fosters a culture of innovation through the creation, sharing, and testing of ideas, a maker space is a collaborative workspace inside a school, library or separate public/private facility that provides hands-on learning as well as help with critical thinking skills.

“The vision is to create a flexible space and a central hub for regional communities to work in collaboration,” says Tu Weissenberger, who with Hoeher conducted a feasibility study in 2016 for the Nelson Innovation Centre, which is about to launch Phase 1 of its operation with a soft opening in October.

“The concept of building an Innovation Centre in Nelson started to merge after I hosted a strategic session where 70 people showed up to talk about what tech in Nelson would look like. Angela was hired to do a feasibility study and I helped her. We had the data to move forward and with the help of Community Futures Central Kootenay and the Nelson and Area Economic Development, a business plan emerged,” says Hoeher. “A combination of government, community and the private sector, as well as the tech component, chambers of commerce and private industries were the ingredients needed to make it happen. It really was a community initiative.”

For the North Okanagan study, Tu Weissenberger and Hoeher interviewed 15 stakeholders, involving regional community members from corporations to government to those involved in the arts, science and technology fields.

The recommendation that came out of the study was for a 2,000 sq. ft. physical space, near downtown, with an anchor tenant. While there was clear support for the Innovation Centre concept, questions arose about the Maker Space, with the construction of a new cultural centre expected to be built in Vernon in the near future.

“The biggest take was that there is no central hub for those 14,000 people to meet and network. This includes the hidden tech community, remote workers, co-workers, independent freelancers, startup businesses, entrepreneurs, artists and makers in the community to come together, share ideas and collaborate or to have Internet access and a meeting/event space,” says Tu Weissenberger. “We also found that people wanted something made in Vernon, not taken from a Silicon Valley model. They wanted something specific to the community.”

Adds Hoeher: “I’ve seen a lot of enthusiasm from young people, who are excited to see their dreams flourish… Tolko and Kal Tire have also been very supportive of this project. The community that has come forward in Vernon so far with their support and enthusiasm has been phenomenal.”

Besides financing, the women agree that social media and branding are the keys to move the concept of an Innovation Centre and Maker Space forward.

“This would have to be done in phases to reflect Vernon’s strengths and needs a passionate leader long- term to move it forward,” says Tu Weissenberger.

Leigha Horsfield, CFNO General Manager, says: “The process in getting to the point of a feasibility study has been highly collaborative and involved many community stakeholders. We feel the community is primed for an asset of this kind and are looking forward to the next steps.”

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