Inside a nondescript warehouse in a small Cornwall, Ont. industrial park, an audio engineer in a sleek recording studio inserts sound effects into a television commercial for an Ottawa-area guitar shop. In an office in an adjacent room, a young man sits at a computer where he is touching up the same ad, soon to air on CTV.
Each man runs his own business, but they are collaborating on a project that neither of them has the skills or sophisticated equipment to do alone – thanks to the state-of-the-art audio-visual studios that they, and more than a dozen other artists, rent monthly from charismatic owner Mark Owen.
“Our motto is that we’re growing by lifting everyone else up,” says Mr. Owen, the founder-owner of DreamBuilderStudios.
Working with a group of like-minded creative business people in his community, Mr. Owen has nurtured dozens of local production-related artists over the last few years. They rent space from him monthly and, in return, work on projects together that they couldn’t capture on their own.
It’s all part of Mr. Owen’s ambitious vision to help Cornwall become North America’s Hollywood Northeast.
It just might happen.
DreamBuilderStudios and six of the businesses it helped mentor recently wrapped up production on a 65-crew member sitcom pilot that the company hopes to sell to CBC Television. If the sitcom bid is successful, Cornwall could lose its reputation as a city of recent factory and mill closures and become known for its creative arts and television and film production.
DreambuilderStudios is among a growing number of creative incubators emerging across Canada, as economists espouse the idea that prosperity lies in developing creative economic clusters and rural communities continue to take action against the impacts of manufacturing jobs migrating to lower-cost countries.
The Canadian Association of Business Incubation knows of about 150 incubators across Canada, 12 of which specialize in growing creative enterprises.
While creative incubators have been around for decades in Canada, most are government funded not-for-profit organizations, says Michael Donahue, an association board member.
Mr. Donahue expects their number of creative incubators will continue to grow.
“Community leaders are looking for ways to support their local economies and they are looking for businesses that may not require high capital investment and to harness the energies and talents of the people who live in their communities,” he says.
At the same time, all levels of government are recognizing the potential value of creative incubators and are providing more money for these ventures.
The Toronto Fashion incubator has provided resources, mentorship and business support to budding fashion designers since 1987. The MaRS Discovery District opened in 2000 and houses more than 2,000 science and technology workers. It provides entrepreneurs with access to seed capital and talent, customer and partner networks, mentorship, and business development education.
There are several creative incubators in rural Ontario: in Stratford, Haliburton, St. Catharines, Bancroft, and in Picton, where another film and television production business incubator has set up shop. Unlike DreamBuilderStudios, these ventures are all government funded.
Creative incubators work on a variety of business models, but the for-profit, privately-run versions often generate revenues by charging low rents in return for providing office space, networking opportunities, shared services and, often, mentoring.
They also collaborate on larger projects as the artist-entrepreneurs at DreamBuilderStudios do. The Cornwall entrepreneurs include TV and film producers, audio engineers, make-up artists, graphic designers, and a staging company.
“It’s the Hollywood production model,” says Kevin Stolarick, a creative economy expert and the research director for The Martin Prosperity Institute at University of Toronto’s Joseph L. Rotman School of Management.
“You bring everyone together for a single production, but as soon as that thing is done, everybody is going to break up and they go on to the next project,” Prof. Stolarick says.
The model works well as long as the key people are available for each project, he says.
So far, it’s working for Dreambuilder Studios. The company recently began making a profit from its rentals and own production commercial videos.
But, as the production of the sitcom suggests, DreamBuilderStudios has much bigger dreams and expansion is already being planned.
Currently, the 20,000 sq.ft. warehouse facility is occupied by the building’s anchor tenant Indie Guitars. It’s a global U.K.-founded guitar maker that recently relocated its world headquarters to Cornwall after Mr. Owen bought into the company.
Also in the building are Fishrizzo Productions, which co-produced the sitcom with DreamBuilderStudios; an amplifier maker; a television production company; an audio recording firm; and a metal fabricator that is expected to come in handy for set building needs.
Prof. Stolarick says there’s definitely potential for growth of creative businesses in smaller communities such as Cornwall, but it may be limited.
“It’s going to initially be easy to attract talent to your talent base, but you will quickly tap it out and run out of people who want to live in Cornwall,” he says.
While the availability of broadband Internet service in Cornwall allows high-tech businesses to operate in the smaller community, many entrepreneurs like to live in bigger cities where they are physically closer to opportunities and their networks, he says.
Mr. Owen, who has rapidly built and then sold two extremely successful businesses – including a pickup truck bed liner manufacturer in Australia that employed more than 130 workers – is unperturbed.
He’s confident that one day Cornwall, or at least Eastern Ontario, will become North America’s new Hollywood Northeast – and he’s going to be one of its engines.
“It’s going to happen,” he says.
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