Town Councillor Alex Reed has returned convinced of the benefits of making Cochrane a major tech innovation hub after a visit to the Waterloo-Kitchener corridor.

Joining a delegation lead by Mayor Jeff Genung to further examine the potential to build upon Cochrane's emerging tech industry, Reed has seen how Waterloo was able to reinvent its economy after suffering an economic drought when major industries returned to the US.

"The trip helped me to not only appreciate the vision and opportunity it has excited me enough to make it one of my major focuses (in addition to the 22/1A intersection) over the last two years of this term for me," says Reed.

One of the tech incubators visited by the Cochrane delegation. (Photo/Alex Reed)The delegation toured three incubators during a hectic three-day visit to fully understand how to establish and operate an incubator here.

Eight people in all, four from the town, toured and met with officials of the Velocity Garage, an early-stage incubator, the Cummunitech public/private innovation hub and DMZ, a business incubator. 

"The lessons learned on the tour of the three facilities are key to how the building will be designed and who will be eligible to be an incubator in the facility," explains Dave Devana, town chief administrative officer, who also participated in the visit. 

Councillor Reed saw more than the opportunity to create jobs; it's about enhancing the entire community. 

"What is very exciting is that not only can the kids, high school and post-secondary students in Cochrane see the potential opportunities for an IT future for themselves, but it’s right here in Cochrane," says Reed, "and the research shows where IT companies start, they stay. They buy homes, shop, raise their families and stay in our community."

It also attracted many accounting and law firms and large companies interested in providing advice and support to startup businesses and enhanced the entire service sector. 

"The opportunities are pretty far-reaching. It really embraces the whole community in terms of opportunities." 

The success of corridor's incubators worked hand-in-hand with post-secondary institutions in the region, like the University of Waterloo and Ryerson University.

Reed says if the town decides to proceed they will reach out to those institutions in our region.

"It is a little premature to begin discussions just yet but given the four post-secondary institutions in Calgary and the programs they offer this is an incredible practical experience for their students," says Reed. "The University of Calgary has an oil and gas IT incubator I believe but it’s very narrowly focused."

First, though, the town council has to decide if they will expand upon the footprint of their transit hub/town services building that is being developed on Railway Street as the first tri-site project. The development is being anchored by $4.5 million in GreenTRIP funding from the province.

In June, town council approved exploring the idea of expanding the transit hub project on Railway, the first of three tri-site parcels slated for development.

Council heard a proposal to develop a 20,000 sq. ft. building, 10,000 sq. ft. per floor, at an estimated cost of $7 to $8 million. It would include a transit plaza, town services potentially offices and an incubator/innovation centre for startup businesses. 

The idea of a third floor hasn't been discarded.

"We are working the numbers through as it would be a second and potentially third floor on top of the transit hub with a mixture of startups (sandbox phase if you will) and more mature, established IT companies as anchor tenants," says Reed.

"The trip solidified for me that the simpler the physical design the better. It’s nothing like a traditional office. It is really quite simple but unique."

Council approval is only a starting point, he notes. A governance model, application process, financial plan and securing anchor tenants are among the hurdles to follow. The town will also need to determine what the first floor looks like in terms of size and what town services should be included.

Additional government funding would also be pursued.

"The IT incubator screams of opportunity as per the UPC platform and therefore we will seek provincial as well as federal funding." 

Town administration is expecting to bring back a business case for the project in September or October to be in a position to construct the building in the spring of 2020, says Devana. This aligns with the town's requirement to spend the GreenTRIP grant for the transit hub by the end of 2020.