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Innovation Centre restructures, centre’s mandate under review (4/03)

By IAN ROSS A major shakeup at Sault Ste. Marie’s Innovation Centre has prompted an independent review of the technology facility’s mandate as the search for a new direction takes place.


A major shakeup at Sault Ste. Marie’s Innovation Centre has prompted an independent review of the technology facility’s mandate as the search for a new direction takes place.

President and chief executive officer Gerry Taylor, who was instrumental in creating the centre, resigned his position March 26.

His position will remain vacant with Taylor’s responsibilities flowing to business manager David Williamson.

Williamson says the changes are a “natural evolution” in the creative process as part of an ongoing restructuring effort.

The centre is undergoing a third-party review, with the hiring of an independent consultant to examine the organization and map out a future strategy.

The centre’s board of directors were to award the $25,000-contract by the first week of April with a report expected to be forthcoming by month’s end.

Taylor’s resignation is not the only recent departure. During January and February, five technical staff were laid off as the work on the centre’s geographic information system (GIS) was wrapped up.

Williamson says the Innovation Centre has evolved into a strong organization despite some growing pains, but it strayed from its original mandate down another path.

Launched in 1999, the centre’s mandate was to be a catalyst for economic development with the development of knowledge-based information technology industries.

But their innovative GIS product became most of the centre’s focus, says Williamson.

“The Innovation Centre, as it was conceptualized, was going through uncharted waters and you try to map something where no one ever had gone before,” says Williamson.

“The original plans were wonderful,” he adds, but reality proved otherwise as they went through the development process.

“In the planning process, expectations were set terribly high and it’s not that the Innovation Centre isn’t producing and developing and contributing, but it’s not contributing at the level the original plans suggested.”

In 1999, the Innovation Centre projected revenues of $157 million over the first five years.

“The original expectations are the issue. We looked back at what can be accomplished practically and we’ve re-written our business plan to something that makes sense for an organization that’s starting off.”

Some critics believe the centre will become a money pit for taxpayers with $6.3 million in public money invested, including $1.3 million from the City of Sault Ste. Marie.

Williamson says the city’s investment in the Innovation Centre project has generated “enormous returns” to the community, generating $24 million mostly from the EDS-General Motors Roadside Assistance call centre with 300 jobs and an $8 million payroll.

He maintains the Innovation Centre has no intention of going back to city council for additional dollars. Last fall, the city allocated $333,000 to the Innovation Centre for its operating expenses in 2003.

Sault Mayor John Rowswell, a staunch backer of the Innovation Centre who serves on the board of directors, declined comment on Taylor’s resignation except to say, that “the Innovation Centre has developed a great GIS product for small and large communities.”

“There’s so much misinformation out there no one really knows and at the appropriate time to speak on it I will speak, but for now, no comment,” Rowswell says.

The geographic information system is a city mapping system in use by the city and the Public Utilities Commission that shows the location of sewers, utility poles and other infrastructure.

Their models are adaptable to suit any municipality and sell between $250,000 and $300,000.

Although the project is widely acknowledged as cutting-edge technology and has been extensively marketed, Williamson says few municipalities have the money within their current budgets to buy the product.

After a recent public consultation session at the Holiday Inn during the last week in March, Williamson says there still remains a long-standing confusion in the business and IT community as to what the centre’s role is.

A better communication strategy is necessary, he says.

The centre still has plans to relocate its business incubator group from its temporary digs on Queen Street in downtown Sault Ste. Marie to a new venue at Algoma University College’s proposed Technology Centre.

Construction is expected to start this spring with a scheduled completion date of January, 2004.

The Innovation Centre will occupy 4,000 square feet of space within the 23,800-square-foot centre to support small- and medium-size ICT business sector incubation.

As well, the centre has long-range plans to set up GIS staff at a new $3-million building next to the EDS Canada GM roadside assistance centre on property donated by the city.

The 10,000-square foot building will also house a call centre component.