Project launched to revitalize city’s core and support new ideas

The city is looking to reward innovative start-up business ideas.

Open now, the Win Your Space YK business incubation contest is offering one winner a free year of leased space, up to a value of $4,000 per month and other funding and business development support. The winner can choose from vacant downtown properties listed on the Win Your Space YK website, including office and retail space in the downtown core. 

The project has lofty goals of supporting business incubation and downtown revitalization, two of the needs identified in a 2015 report. At that time the city identified a vacancy rate of 7.8 per cent downtown, compared to a 2.3-per-cent vacancy rate for the rest of Yellowknife.

A city can’t flourish without a strong downtown,” said Joelle Foster, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and NWT regional director for Futurpreneur Canada, a partner on the project.

She said downtown looks the same as 25 years ago when she went to high school in Yellowknife, a sign that initiatives like this are necessary.

This has been done in a lot of other communities in the rest of Canada,” she said. “Revitalizing the downtown and getting young entrepreneurs or entrepreneurs in general to start those businesses – but they need help.

A lease on a physical space can be that extra push that gets someone from the thinking phase to action, at least that’s what the owners of The Fat Fox Cafe discovered when they recently signed their lease. Co-owner Emma Atkinson said they initially faced a lot of people discouraging them from leasing there because of vagrancy and the general sense that downtown was not a desirable location to open a business.

Restaurants or franchises are not allowed to apply to the contest.

City of Yellowknife communications officer Stephanie Vandeputte said this is because the commercial spaces included either do not allow restaurants or require extensive renovations to house a restaurant. Despite this, Fat Fox co-owner Jeremy Flatt said the program is still a good idea.

I think it’s a pretty sweet deal because rent is high,” he said of the downtown area. “So it’s intimidating for people if they want to set up a kind of brick-and-mortar space and run a business.

The contest, finalized in September 2018, will cost an estimated $76,000. Of this, the city will fund up to $22,500, with the rest covered by corporate sponsorships and in-kind donations from 14 partners on the project. The city has also made a $20,000 funding application to the Government of the Northwest Territories that is pending review.

Council members who responded to requests for comment were generally supportive of the contest.

Coun. Adrian Bell stated in an e-mail the contest could “breathe new retail life” into downtown, while emphasizing the contest is not the only thing council had been working on for the area.

Strategic investments have been made, and others are on their way, to tackle the many facets of our downtown problem, from homelessness to cleanliness to public safety,” he stated, adding a broader vision for downtown is in the works and should be ready by the end of June.

The contest will allow new entrepreneurs to test out ideas, as well as give council a picture of how many people want to start a business, Coun. Niels Konge wrote. He emphasized the need to support both new and existing businesses.

Vandeputte said this is a pilot project and the city would like to partner with landlords with similar projects in the future. For the time being, downtown landlords will not see direct benefits from this project other than having their vacancies listed on the contest site.

Residents with a business idea and business owners with a new product or offering or plans to expand into downtown can apply by the May 28 deadline with a short video explaining their idea. Vandeputte said there is no need to spend money on a video. It can be made on a cellphone, and no business plan is needed at this point, just a good idea.

Fact File

Spaces available for first place contest winner 

Main floor 50-50 Mini Mall – Office space

Lower floor Graham Bromley Building – Back office

Lower floor Graham Bromley Building – Front office

Centre Square mall – Two shops

Bowling Green Building – Office space

2nd Floor NWT Commerce Place – Open concept office space

3rd Floor NWT Commerce Place – Office space

Lower level YK Mall – Retail and office space

CloudWorks Buildings – Studio space

Source: City of Yellowknife