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Cash-strapped IT centre revamping (05/04)

By IAN ROSS If there was ever a time for the Sault Ste. Marie Innovation Centre to get its act together, the time is now, says a board member of the struggling business development organization.
By IAN ROSS

If there was ever a time for the Sault Ste. Marie Innovation Centre to get its act together, the time is now, says a board member of the struggling business development organization.

Jason Collins, a city councillor and one of the architects of the Innovation Centre's new strategy and business plan, is "excited and optimistic" about the centre's new direction to fulfill its role as an IT economic developer.

"Having gone in as a pessimist with a skeptical eye, I can confidentially say I have a lot of faith in what they're going to do."

The cash-strapped, non-profit organization was given a new lease on life in March with a $182,707 grant from the City of Sault Ste. Marie to continue operations for 2004. They are aiming for a matching contribution from FedNor to sustain their $365,000 budget.

While the Innovation Centre has produced award-winning GIS municipal software, it has been shrouded in controversy following the sudden resignation of CEO Gerry Taylor last spring and a subsequent organizational review by BDO Dunwoody.

Critics on city council and in the local IT community contend the centre was duplicating and competing against work done in the private sector. Also, they say the centre has generated only a few hundred thousand dollars in revenue since startup in late 2000, nowhere close to the $157 million
originally projected.

The BDO Dunwoody report, released in January, concludes the centre strayed from its original mandate and needs to get back on track as a business facilitator to develop technology and a knowledge-based environment.

The report says some value has been achieved with their municipal GIS (Geographic Information Systems) capabilities, but there is little evidence of any success in developing IT entrepreneurship or support of knowledge-based industry.

The city contributed $1 million in start-up funding, plus two loans of $611,000 each, as well as contributions of more than $2 million to develop the GIS systems software for the municipality. According to the new five-year business plan further funding requests to the city will be made into 2008.

Collins says the centre management's team has embraced the review's findings and defined a new plan to work with small and medium businesses to grow IT opportunities, focus on business incubation, and also grow the GIS opportunity in a more sensible direction.

Innovation Centre business manager Dave Williamson says the four-year-old Innovation Centre has shown value for taxpayers' dollars, infusing $11 million into the local economy by attracting outside funding. It has created more than 325 jobs in the call centre industry and has saved the
municipality and the Public Utilities Commission more than $3 million by implementing their GIS package.




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