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Coworking spaces set to grow in Edmonton

A touch late to the creative economy party, Alberta’s capital is now joining in

Tim Querengesser is senior editor with Alberta Venture. Email Tim

May 22, 2014

by Tim Querengesser

Recently, RedBrick Real Estate Services purchased the historic Alberta Block building on Edmonton’s Jasper Avenue – a 37,000-square-foot, six-floor tower that was last occupied by CKUA Radio in 2011. RedBrick intends to run its head office from the building, says Tegan Martin-Drysdale, a principal with the company, but beyond its own plans has been researching other potential uses and tenants to share the space. One of RedBrick’s ideas? Create a coworking space.

What’s a coworking space? In a nut, coworking is a shared workspace model designed around thriftiness and the economic benefits of networking. Coworking spaces offer those who aren’t employed by the same organization – freelancers, indie entrepreneurs, not-for-profits, citizen groups, ‘makers,’ knowledge workers, micro businesses and other players in what’s loosely defined as the ‘creative economy’ – the chance to, well, get out of the house. “I needed structure. I needed social interaction. I needed professionalism. What I needed was my own office,” writes frequent Alberta Venture contributor Omar Mouallem, in this story about coworking spaces. “But on a writer’s wage?” Mouallem now is part of the coworking clientele at Startup Edmonton, and writes that it offers him “all the perks of a professional workplace, without sacrificing the virtues of self-employment.”

Where this comes into focus for Edmonton is in the availability and affordability of physical working space for those who aren’t employed in the traditional economy. As the Edmonton Economic Development Corporation notes, the creative economy that coworking spaces serve is already a mainstream thing in Alberta. You’ve probably heard the creative economy term thanks to pop-philosopher Richard Florida, but perhaps struggle to see it. Well, based on the broadest criteria – which basically includes anyone who uses knowledge to solve problems – Alberta’s creative economy accounts for 36 per cent of Calgary’s workforce and 30 per cent of Edmonton’s (those numbers are, not coincidentally, from the Martin Prosperity Institute, a Toronto think-tank run by Florida). But as EEDC also notes, unlike Calgary, Edmonton still does not have an explicit strategy to develop its creative economy or the spaces that this economy requires.

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That has EEDC interested in at least understanding the needs that are out there. The organization recently acquired Startup Edmonton, the technology-centric business incubator located in a downtown warehouse that also hosts coworking desk spaces for as little as $150 a month. And when it got wind of RedBrick’s coworking space plans, EEDC quickly organized a meeting between the company and potential users.

Coworking has already been an unsung success story in the city, too. Several companies have emerged from coworking desks at Startup Edmonton, and several more have outgrown the digs at the lesser known Unit B, a coworking space in a historic building on trendy 104 Street that was started in 2011 by five entrepreneurs. “It quickly grew to support over 10 small businesses and 30 freelance consultants,” says Lisa Hagen, who helps run Unit B as well as her own company. “We’re seeing a growing demand for coworking space within Edmonton and various communities forming within this space. Each space supports the specific needs of its entrepreneurs, with focus ranging from creatives to makers to tech,” she says. “Although coworking is a relatively new industry in Edmonton, it’s one of the most important systems to support the needs of a growing group of people who choose to work independently.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, coworking is predominately a new-economy and new-generation thing: a 2011 study found that the average age of a coworking user is 34. But coworking is not just for young freelancers: in the U.S., 35 per cent of those working in coworking spaces are salaried employees. And coworking is not just for startup businesses, either. The Centre for Social Innovation, in Toronto, was started in 2004, around the idea of fund-crunched charities and other social organizations sharing space and collaborating rather than working in isolation in substandard facilities. It has since grown to two dedicated locations in Toronto and a soon-to-open location in New York City.

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One Response to Coworking spaces set to grow in Edmonton

  1. Candas says:

    Tim writes that “co-working is predominately a new-economy and new-generation thing” but asking a wider spectrum of people would have shown you that it’s not new at all. Just in my career experience of over 40 years in the arts, I can think of scads of artist-driven, artist-run co-working spaces in Edmonton over the last 30 years, some of which I helped establish. Some examples: The Writers’ Centre in the old Imperial Lumber Building (writers, editors, The Edmonton Bullet arts monthly, sound recording, photography studios), the artist and arts-organisation spaces in the McLeod Building (theatre, writing, publishing, visual arts. music), the Wordworks Building in the old Land Titles site on 100 avenue (literary arts organisations), the Weinlos Building (Weinlos Books bookstore, writers, editors, publishing, filmmaking), the Phillips Building (visual artists, musicians), Birks Building (writers, editors, publishers, music, visual arts, graphic design, film, photography, etc.) and artists’ studio spaces in Old Strathcona, Boyle Street and elsewhere. That is far from a complete list. (And I should point out that there were co-operative efforts of this sort back as many as 100 years — think of Ernest Brown and Gladys Reeves photographers sharing studios and commercial space, for example.) If Tim had asked around a bit, these initiatives are no secret. Also I think it’s worth noting that some of them kept important historic buildings (like the McLeod, Birks and Phillips Buildings) open and viable during economic hard times in the downtown and on Whyte. It does us, who did that work during our arts careers, and all of Edmonton a disservice to say that this new wave is the first wave. I am troubled at the implication that the current generation of young, hip Edmontonians think they are the first to invent their community and their city. I’m not convinced they are that self-centred, but even if they are, it would be more in the spirit of the collegiality represented by co-working spaces if these artists and young entrepreneurs — and the journalists doing the stories about them — would get in touch with the “institutional memory” of their community and discover their (recent and historical) forbears and their roots. They would find a wealth of connexion, experience, wisdom and mentorship there, and losing their righteous pioneer spirit would be more than compensated by gaining a full sense of their community and the support we can offer them.

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