Capital: Victoria’s tech industry breathes life into downtown

Victoria’s downtown core, which has been much maligned over the years as a dead zone where retail went to die, is very much alive and thriving these days — and it owes a portion of its renaissance to the region’s soaring technology sector.

The high-tech sector, which boasts annual revenues in excess of $4 billion and is considered the city’s most valuable industry, has found a solid fit in the city’s downtown, filling in upper-floor and hard-to-rent offices. And the city seems to have responded in kind, flourishing with new retail offerings, cafes, pubs, restaurants, services and a host of new residential buildings.

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While no one in the tech sector is about to claim full responsibility for the life breathed into the downtown, it’s hard to avoid linking the fortunes of the two.

“Tech has been a huge economic boon to downtown,” said Marc Foucher of Colliers International Victoria. “There are 380 tech firms operating in downtown Victoria alone and they are employing people who walk out for coffee every morning, eat lunch downtown, shop after work, go to yoga.

“I’m not at all surprised that retail is coming back downtown. There are more shops, more vacant retail fronts are being leased up and following on that are the number of condos and rental buildings going up in Victoria. Tech is not responsible for all of it, but it plays a role.”

According to Colliers’ most recent retail market overview, tech, tourism and increased downtown residential building have resulted in the retail vacancy rate dropping to 5.45 per cent at the end of last year compared to 8.53 per cent at the end of 2015.

And Colliers’ last office-tenant demand profile study in 2015 showed that of all lease deals done in the region, tech and digital media accounted for 49 per cent, with government deals accounting for just 23 per cent.

In the downtown core, tech accounted for 90,000 square feet of space leased in 2015 while government leasing accounted for 111,000 square feet.

Dan Gunn, chief executive of the Victoria Innovation, Advanced Technology and Entrepreneurship Council, known as VIATEC, said tech companies have been downtown a long time, but they are just now starting to make their presence felt by the sheer weight of their numbers.

“The difference is the success they are having now and the size they are now,” said Gunn, noting there were more than 300 firms in the core five years ago. “Tech has now arrived, it’s proud and showing off a bit more.”

He believes the establishment of VIATEC at the highly visible Fort Tectoria (777 Fort St.) and shared-space tech buildings such as The Summit (838 Fort St.), 844 Courtenay St., 955 View St. and SpaceStation (517 Fort St.) have provided natural hubs where tech workers can get together and experience a sense of community.

“We wanted a retail street-level presence so people could identify and see the evidence of the tech sector,” said Gunn of VIATEC’s return to the downtown core in 2014. “Until then, tech had been largely invisible.”

There’s no missing them now, and Gunn said that will continue as young companies who want to succeed have learned they need to be in desirable locations, close to amenities and on transit routes to attract and retain talent.

“Having a good place to go for lunch or a beer, the amenities for day-to-day life are key considerations,” he said. “Downtown cores are appealing to tech companies and staff because of all they have to offer.”

Tobyn Sowden, chief executive at software developer Redbrick, said they have always been a downtown company, starting in Market Square and now occupying a large open-floor space on a second floor on Store Street.

“We were attracted to this building because we knew we could really customize it to meet our needs, and we worked with some amazing local designers and contractors to do just that,” said Sowden. “We are adamant about helping to promote a great work-life balance, and with so many of our team members walking, cycling and sometimes even running to work, being centrally located downtown is extremely important to us.”

Sowden said the company feeds off the new energy downtown and the downtown seems to be doing the same in reaction to the influx of tech companies.

“The amenities around us have multiplied and expanded since we opened up shop in 2011, and though we have a weakness for the amazing coffee shops and pubs nearby, we can't take full credit for their growth,” he said. “That said, I don’t think we can live without them; at the very least, our productivity would suffer without all of the coffee and lunch options at our doorstep.”

Catherine Holt, chief executive of the Greater Victoria Chamber, said the tech sector has played a big role in creating the new vibe downtown. However, she is quick to point out it’s not the only factor.

“Visitors and new downtown residents is what is re-invigorating downtown and absolutely the tech sector is a big part of that,” she said, noting the tech sector may not sell a lot of product or service here, but its workers do spend a lot of money in the city.

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