The Fort Street Metamorphosis: From antique row to tech row

Dan Gunn at Fort Tectoria
Photo by Ilijc Albanese
Dan Gunn at Fort Tectoria Photo by Ilijc Albanese

Fort Street used to have a reputation for its auction houses and antiques shops, but there has been a recent migration to the area — and the new settlers are making their presence known.
On the ground, Fort Street hasn’t changed all that much — there are still auction houses and antiques shops — the real change is happening on the second floor. Offices are packed with enterprising tech companies who serve the international market via the Internet and have no need for a storefront.
Dan Gunn, Executive Director of the non-profit Victoria Advanced Technology Council (VIATeC), says there are more than 330 tech companies in the downtown core, dozens on Fort Street alone.

Dan Gunn, photo by Ilijc Albanese

Dan Gunn, photo by Ilijc Albanese

The tech industry really made its presence known when VIATeC opened its headquarters, Fort Tectoria, at 777 Fort Street late last year. Its red sign is a beacon for programmers, and a glowing reminder of the tech sector’s $3-billion impact on the local economy.
Sandwiched between a row of restaurants, VIATeC opened the Ground Control Cafe on the ground floor in early 2015. The cafe is open to the public and offers more than just good coffee and tea (supplied by local artisans 2% Jazz and Earth’s Herbal). Step just beyond the lobby and onto a wood-panelled path to the information highway — the Tilted Rocket Lounge boasts some of the fastest free WiFi in the city, alongside comfy vintage couches and plenty of workspace. The building is also home to VIATeC’s accelerator program, and event hub, co-working space, and offices for rent, alongside shared meeting rooms, kitchen facilities, and more.
Gunn says that VIATeC’s expansion has been tied to its visibility. The association saw exponential growth when it moved from UVic’s Vancouver Island Technology Park by Camosun’s Interurban campus to the corner of Hillside and Douglas in April 2012. Its profile has only increased since moving downtown. It was able to fund the purchase of the building with the proceeds from its online job board, which provided more than $650,000 towards a down payment on the $1.6 million tab. It took just over five months to renovate the entire building, which used to be home to J & L Copy. Known as the Deans Block, the building, built in 1909, needed to be fully gutted.

Owen Matthews, photo by Ilijc Albanese

Owen Matthews, photo by Ilijc Albanese

VIATeC worked with Dan Robbins, principal at Sakura Developments, and Fraser McColl on the renovation, thanks in part to local investor and tech entrepreneur Owen Matthews, who has worked with the developers on other properties in the area.
Matthews is set to open his third “mini tech park” along the Fort Street corridor later this summer. The three-story structure at 838 Fort will house companies in Matthews’ ever-expanding portfolio of investments and will have a mountain theme. Wait, what?!
Matthews takes an innovative approach to creating office spaces because emerging tech companies have ever-changing needs. “The idea of a five-year lease doesn’t work for tech companies,” says Matthews.
Many bootstrapped start-ups share office space, and have cubicles or desks in open rooms. To give employees the privacy they need to have video calls or take meetings, Matthews parked a Bowler trailer and a Volkswagen Vanagon inside the offices at 1124 Vancouver. The vehicles are wired for connectivity and host meetings of two to four people.
“While the van is great, we were looking for something that had better seating and less wasted space,” says Matthews. “Then I realized that gondolas would be the perfect meeting place. With seating around the outside, everyone is facing each other.”
After an endless Internet search for used gondola pods, Matthews was about to give up when a friend with a connection at Whistler/Blackcomb gave him the news — upgrades to the gondola meant they had old pods for sale. Matthews bought three, which will be installed at 838 Fort. He also has a line on the frame of a helicopter that may go in as well, although he says he “might get talked out of that one.”

Owen Matthews at 1124 Vancouver Street, photo by Ilijc Albanese

Owen Matthews at 1124 Vancouver Street, photo by Ilijc Albanese

The building at 1124 Vancouver (at the corner of View Street) used to be a bottle depot. “It was effectually derelict,” says Matthews. “The roof was falling down. It was covered in graffiti. Its broken windows were boarded up. It only took two and a half months to turn it into what it is now.”
Even with gondolas and helicopters, Matthews manages to maintain a fairly low profile in Victoria. The son of billionaire tech entrepreneur, Sir Terrance Matthews (chairperson of Mitel and Wesley Clover), Owen could have chosen anywhere in the world to live. He followed his older brother to Victoria to attend UVic and never left. “People who act important move to Toronto. People who want to pretend they’re in Hollywood move to Vancouver. If I wanted attention, I would live in one of those cities,” he says, adding, “I haven’t moved more than 200 yards from where I first landed here in Oak Bay.”
And even though he’s not looking for attention (full disclosure, I sought him out for this interview), he was awarded the Colin Lennox Award for Tech Champion at the 2014 VIATeC Awards in recognition of his many years of mentorship and support of the Victoria tech industry. “He easily could have sat back on a pile of cash,” says Gunn. “He’s very community minded. He’s willing to do what’s best overall for the tech scene every time.”
Matthews is heavily involved with mentorship in the local tech industry through the Alacrity Foundation and the entrepreneurship@UVic program, where engineering students can simultaneously earn a master’s degree and a business diploma. Its participants are essentially launching careers in the tech industry before graduation (www.ece.uvic.ca/~eemp).
Matthews says that Victoria has a unique combination of attributes that make it an attractive place to invest — like the quality of the local university and the thriving local tech sector. But when it comes down to it, to him, “culture is everything.”
“It’s that culture that attracts and retains the best people. And let’s face it; I spend a lot of time with these people every day. They’re like family.”

 

 

 

Local Leaders

Victoria’s tech industry is as vast as the Internet itself. Here are a few local tech companies that go beyond the typical app developers, data miners, and game designers.
FriesenPress 
(990 Fort) is a leader in the world of self-publishing. friesenpress.com

Flytographer 
(517 Fort) helps arrange photo sessions for those
on vacation. 
flytographer.com

Limbic Media 
(740 Discovery) specializes in interactive media control technologies and fine art installations showcasing its technologies. limbicmedia.ca

SendtoNews (1111 Wharf) is a world leader in syndicated sports video highlights. sendtonews.com

AbeBooks (655 Tyee) is owned by Amazon.com, and is a massive online marketplace for books. 
abebooks.com

 

 

 

 

words by Mary Ellen Green, photos by Ilijc Albanese

 

originally published in analogue magazine’s June/July 2015 issue, available in stores now for $5.