Economic renewal, an uphill battle in Port Alberni for decades, may have a wellspring in South Port where old and vacant buildings abound.
There are no fewer than 100 vacant buildings in the city, continual reminders of a 20th century heyday. No more than 10 percent of those buildings are on the market at any given time. About 40 percent of the empty buildings are in Uptown.
Look again, though. In the eyes of some, those scattered vestiges of the past have come to represent future possibilities for growth.
“These aren’t empty buildings, they’re assets and potential opportunities, opportunities for Port Alberni to revitalize,” said Kevin Wright, owner of Steampunk Café and president of Uptown Merchants Association.
Wright and his Third Avenue neighbour, Flandangles owner Chris Washington, are the social enterprise team behind a program aptly called Sprout. The home of Sprout is a grass-roots business development and social enterprise centre about to open its Third Avenue doors to greater possibilities, not only in Uptown but throughout the city.
Wright has been advocating for just such a program for several years through the café — in itself a social enterprise — training, workshops, and a run at municipal office. He conceived of Sprout five years ago as a business development program and later adapted it to a social enterprise model.
“Social enterprise is really about community enrichment — helping communities grow,” he explained.
“I’ve always thought it was a great idea,” Washington said. “When I heard about the social enterprise, I got super excited.”
According to the B.C. Centre for Social Enterprise, social enterprises are “revenue-generating businesses with a twist.” They can be operated either by a non-profit or a for-profit company, but their goals extend beyond generating revenue to include social, cultural, community-economic or environmental incomes.
That may involve, for example, encouraging businesses to hire people who face socio-economic challenges. There is a significant potential labour pool in Port Alberni that doesn’t match expectations within the conventional workforce.
“Targeted social enterprise has the intent to hire people with those issues and it’s happening all over,” Wright said.
New businesses also have hurdles to jump. Roughly half fail within five years.
“The concern that I’m having with the city is that we have a lot of businesses opening randomly in random buildings,” Wright said. “They don’t have input from the community, they make their own assumptions and quite often get themselves in trouble with that.”
One of his micro and small business strategies would allow start-ups to gain a foothold by leasing a portion of an otherwise vacant building at a reduced rate. The Third Avenue business centre is designed to be an incubator for innovative or adaptive approaches.
“In this space, our intention is to build a model that people can come in and buy into. The progression of businesses would happen quicker because there is a plan and, secondly, would be more relevant to the city’s growth and to the issues.”
Sprout has the official endorsement of city council and will be collaborating broadly with groups such as Community Futures, which already supports start-ups through counselling and low-interest loans.
Wright said Sprout will have the ability to focus its resources on those most likely to succeed as social and community initiatives.
“We’re going to be looking to advocate for businesses that would encapsulate the city’s heart, its culture, its community, its core values. We’re not going to stop any business from coming in, but if we can advocate for a particular style of business that really does speak to the community and have input from the community, I think they’ll be better received.”
“It also works better for our plans for the Uptown area, because we want a certain feel,” Washington said. “We want to make this area a social gathering place and that helps the issues in the Uptown area.”
They emphasize that Sprout is a city-wide initiative. For its part, the community is getting behind the program even before doors open, a hint of pent-up desire to see business thriving again in Port Alberni.
“We’re talking to different businesspeople who want to donate their time. People who want to donate money to help us out.” Others have donated materials such as desks and computers. People totally see the issue and they’re more than happy to step in.”
Sprout has the potential to become a catalyst for change.
“It’s good to see people like Kevin stepping forward,” said Lori Camire, executive director of Community Futures Alberni-Clayoquot.
The federally funded agency is part of a national network that assists small business start-ups. “He has interests and experience that can help potential business start-ups.”
Community Futures is prepared to handle any referrals of any business that wants to take it to the next step, Camire said.
The city’s economy is on an upswing, she added.
“I think it is turning a corner. It seems to be stabilized.”
As Wright installed walls one day in preparation for opening, he had five individuals walk in, wondering about support for their business ideas.
“I kind of look at it as a showcase for change, showing the community what it could be in the future.”
Pat Deakin, the city’s economic development manager, likes what he sees.
“Kevin is a real inspiration and we will be working with him,” Deakin said at a recent workshop. “I’m hoping this will inspire more and we will move forward.”