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social enterprise

A view of the train tracks in front of Sainte-Agnes Church in Lac-Mégantic, Que.Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

The Centre Magnétique is expected to open its doors in Lac-Mégantic, Que., next year, and when it does there will be more to celebrate than the completion of a new kind of community work space.

Many in the town of 6,000, located in Quebec's Eastern Townships region, already see the centre as a symbol of a bright new future.

It's been nearly two years since a freight train carrying crude oil derailed in the downtown core. The explosion and subsequent fire killed 47 people and destroyed half of the buildings in the town centre. The last of the remaining buildings were demolished this year beacuse of contamination concerns.

"Literally, the tragedy has caused a vacuum in the heart of the city," Karine Pepin, a local entrepreneur, said in an e-mail.

"As time goes by, this empty space is being filled with many new ideas. The Centre Magnétique project is one of them."

The centre is the brainchild of McGill University students Bernard d'Arche, 21, and Cécile Branco, 23. The pair conceived of the idea while taking a business course on entrepreneurship and innovation at the Desautels Faculty of Management in Montreal.

As a class project, the students were asked to develop a business plan for a rural area in Canada. Both were interested in creating a social enterprise and sent a survey to various communities to gauge interest in building a collaborative space in support of the local economy.

The response from Lac-Mégantic was immediate.

"There were a lot of people asking for a place to meet, somewhere they could exchange ideas," said Ms. Branco, who is now working full-time on the Centre Magnétique project after graduating from McGill with a BA in international development.

Both Mr. d'Arche and Ms. Branco said they never imagined their business-school project would change their lives so dramatically.

Last year, the project tied for first place in the social enterprise category of the McGill Dobson Cup Competition. Teams were judged over a multistage process on their concept, pitch, financial model and social impact, among other factors. The prize comes with a $10,000 startup grant.

Patrick Vespa, manager of strategy and program development at Dobson Centre for Entrepreneurship, said the Centre Magnétique project stood out largely because the students listened so closely to the needs of the Lac-Mégantic community.

"They took a human-centred design to heart," Mr. Vespa said.

From the beginning, the centre was envisaged as an affordable work space and gathering space for entrepreneurs, the self-employed, as well as community, tourism and cultural organizations. Based on office co-op models in urban centres such as Sherbrooke and Montreal, it's intended to maximize resources on a practical level by sharing meeting spaces, equipment and office supplies.

The real advantage of the model, its co-founders say, is in the creative potential among users who will benefit from the free flow of ideas and expertise across topics and professions, from graphic designer to artist, consultant or personal finance expert.

"The system is based on mutual exchange," Ms. Branco said.

Construction costs are estimated at just more than $1-million, with some of the capital expected to come from a special fund set up by the provincial and federal governments to help with the town's reconstruction. Its supporters are also seeking private investment.

The regional district of Le Granit has already donated the land and will be legal co-owner of the centre, along with a not-for-profit organization set up and run, at least in the short-term, by Mr. d'Arche and Ms. Branco. Once the business is running smoothly, the idea is to turn it over to its local supporters.

"The idea is really to have everyone contributing to this project," said Mr. d'Arche, who graduated with a BA in economics and philosophy this spring. "We want the community to feel it is their project, above all."

The Centre Magnétique is envisaged to include private offices, an open workspace for up to nine people, a lounge, a kitchen and space for three startups to incubate their ideas for up to three years.

Jacques Cloutier, a local business teacher and coach, was among the first to get onboard the project. He's been working with both Mr. d'Arche and Ms. Branco closely since then to bring it into reality.

"We need this project for the community. For me it was very, very clear, instantly," Mr. Cloutier said.

Like many of his neighbours, he's eager for construction to begin. As the grim anniversary of the disaster approaches on July 6, the lack of visible progress is taking its toll. There's an unspoken worry that the town of Lac-Mégantic will disappear as residents look to rebuild their lives in more vibrant communities elsewhere.

"For me, for the town, and for people around me, [the centre] will give a message: We are standing again. We are transforming what happened here into an opportunity to create something else. This is the entrepreneur's way of saying it," Mr. Cloutier said.

Ms. Pepin said she hopes the centre will help the town become known for something more than the rail disaster.

"Our population has such a low density right now that we have to be attractive to new inhabitants, and this project would help us stand out," she said.

Mr. d'Arche said the connection he and Ms. Branco feel with Lac-Mégantic is real, and one they hope will last a lifetime.

"There is always the memory of what happened two years ago, but also growing consensus that now is the time to rebuild," he said.

"It's time to re-envision what the downtown area is going to look like and, step by step, the community is realizing there is an opportunity to do something different than what was there before."

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