In the late 1980s, St. Albert, Alberta, Canada, encountered alarming imbalances between its residential and nonresidential tax base. As a suburb of Edmonton, the city was experiencing exceptional residential growth. Unfortunately for residents of the upper middle-class community, job opportunities within the city were not keeping pace. To help increase the chances for residents to both live and work in their community, the city launched the St. Albert Business Development Centre in 1989. Since opening, the mixed-use business incubator has aimed to expand the local economy by raising occupancy rates at St. Albert’s office parks, increasing the success rate of start-up businesses and providing educational opportunities for local entrepreneurs.
In its 13-year history, the program has met and surpassed its goals, launching 56 new businesses and providing assistance to hundreds of other local firms through courses, seminars and one-on-one business counseling. In 2001, the incubator changed its name to the Northern Alberta Business Incubator (NABI) to better reflect its expanding mission as a regional incubator and in hopes of capturing the attention of emerging businesses in surrounding communities, as well as provincial and national government agencies.
"We wanted people to know we serve more than just our own city, since there are many entrepreneurs in surrounding rural communities that could benefit from our services," says L. Lorne Ross, NABI manager. "Servicing a larger market will also benefit St. Albert and its citizens, as every business brought in brings economic benefit to the city."
The Northern Alberta Business Incubator Society, a nonprofit organization, now operates the incubator in a 16,000-square-foot converted schoolhouse that can house up to 35 clients. NABI currently houses 21 businesses that employ 30 people. The businesses range from high-tech start-ups to business service providers. "Our businesses aren’t necessarily the ones you’ll see listed on Nasdaq, although there are one or two that may end up there someday," Ross says. "But they are solid family businesses that do a good job of providing community jobs for local workers."
True to the program’s commitment to helping expand the local economy, staff members make every effort to help clients find suitable business locations within the city of St. Albert after graduation. More than 80 percent of its 56 graduates have remained in the city, including 10 companies that operate within the revitalized downtown district. NABI graduates now occupy more than 30,000 square feet of retail and commercial space in St. Albert and employ more than 350 people.
The Centre for Innovative Management, a free-standing MBA program offered by Athabasca University, is one such successful graduate that is helping spark the St. Albert economy. The program, which began in 1993 in a 250-square-foot office in the incubator, is now the largest distance-MBA program in Canada. The center occupies 10,000 square feet of office space in the city and employs more than 30 local residents, as well as 95 academics throughout the world.
Ross attributes the incubator’s success to the staff’s dedication to industry best practices and the board’s commitment to local entrepreneurs. "Through the years, all of our boards have been made up of good, committed people who do more than just come to meetings," Ross says. "They’re working boards, very hands-on, without being intrusive." When the NABI facility needed to be spruced up, board members teamed with clients and incubator staff to paint the facility at minimal cost. Board members also represent the incubator at a variety of events and meetings designed to promote NABI, its works and the incubation industry.
NABI’s collegial climate also has been a key factor in its success, Ross says, as potential clients recognize the importance of a good working environment when selecting a location for their new ventures. The incubator brings clients and graduates together regularly for recreational events — such as slow pitch softball games, golf tournaments and holiday parties — to encourage camaraderie among local entrepreneurs and to promote NABI’s reputation in the community as a good place to work.
NABI is working to raise its image nationally and internationally, so Ross says he hopes to parlay the Incubator of the Year Award into an increased awareness of both the industry and the incubator. "Over the last several years, I have really bought into the business incubation process," he says. "But even though we realize the importance of growing our own businesses, it’s sometimes a challenge to tell that story, even within our own community.This is the best pat of the back we can get, and I hope we can turn it intofurther rewards as we embark on our capital improvement campaign."
Ross notes that the incubator is becoming "size-challenged" and needs a larger, more modern facility with the infrastructure to support the technology needs of area entrepreneurs. St. Albert is home to more than 100 home-based businesses in the field of information technology alone, so Rosssays he hopes to help regional entrepreneurs recognize that the incubator isthe next logical step in the process of developing their businesses. NABI soon will embark on a capital fund drive to raise funds for a new 30,000-square-foot facility to better serve entrepreneurs in the region.
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