Conestoga digital arts campus awaits council approval

Terry Pender, Record staff April 18, 2013

KITCHENER — An old downtown building is slated to become a showcase for art, design and new digital content if city councillors approve the Kitchener Studio Project on Monday.
The project would see Conestoga College lease 10,000 square feet of space at 44 Gaukel St. for five years from the City of Kitchener. The college will collaborate on this unique campus with Christie Digital, the University of Waterloo, Wilfrid Laurier University and some high-tech companies in the nearby Lang Tannery building.
Conestoga College president John Tibbits said the digital media sector is growing and there is a shortage of skilled workers to provide content, which includes graphics, stories and music.

“This is an opportunity,” Tibbits said. “I would hope that we would be able to grow this area quite considerably.”
The project is viewed as essential to advance the city’s growing cluster of digital media companies. Artists, storytellers, animators and product designers are needed for online and mobile applications and for the gaming industry. This region is world famous for its hardware — think BlackBerry smartphones and Christie Digital projectors — but not so much for the other stuff.
“This is a strategic concern for Kitchener and Waterloo Region as content creation and digital technology are currently evolving symbiotically,” reads a city report. “Content is driving technology and technological development enables the evolution of content. Both are required to build a truly competitive digital media cluster.”
Digital media companies located in Kitchener have said they want access to art and design talent, reads the report, and locating both sectors is necessary for collaboration.
“It seems that this is a win-win for the city and the college and perhaps other post-secondary institutions,” Tibbits said.
The Kitchener Studio Project will be equipped with cutting-edge technology for graphics, music, film, design and gaming. It will have a gallery for exhibits and events.
“I think it’s fantastic news both for the city and Conestoga College,” Coun. Frank Etherington said.
The studio will be in Etherington’s ward, which also includes the expanding digital media cluster at the Tannery.
“The way I understand it, this is another art and design piece in that whole downtown digital puzzle that’s clicking into place,” Etherington said. “I can’t believe the way the Tannery continues to expand. You start to wonder when they are going to reach capacity.”
The Critical Media Lab and the Games Institute from the University of Waterloo will be involved, along with the School of Media and Design from Conestoga College. The contemporary art festival CAFKA and the KwartzLab could also be future collaborators.
“It’s excellent news,” Mayor Carl Zehr said in an interview on Wednesday.
The roots of the Kitchener Studio Project go back about eight years, when the city started developing what it called education, knowledge and creation clusters, such as the School of Pharmacy, medical school and graduate school of social work, Zehr said.
The city has invested more than $100 million in the downtown in the past 10 years, attracting much more from the private sector — large condo projects at King and Victoria, on Benton Street, Mansion and King Street. The redevelopment of the Tannery and the Breithaupt Block soon followed.
“It’s not the City of Kitchener alone, we have created the atmosphere and environment in which the private sector and other institutions can deliver,” Zehr said.
The digital media cluster downtown, centred in the former Lang Tannery, was jump-started with a grant from the city.
“The world of design and technology is not everyone’s cup of tea and we still have to have the basics in terms of some traditional manufacturing in our community,” Zehr said. “But this is helping to broaden our economic base.”
The studio will bring more people downtown to work, learn and play, he said.
Zehr is supported by Coun. Berry Vrbanovic, who said: “The Kitchener Studio Project is the next phase in our pursuit of economic growth for our community and region.”
Vrbanovic added: “This proposal continues to move us in the innovation-focused direction often spoken about by Gov. Gen. David Johnston and moves Kitchener and the region into the ranks of other highly innovative communities.”
Across Gaukel Street from the Kitchener Studio Project is the central bus station. That will be moved to the new transit hub at King and Victoria streets in a few years. The current site of the central bus station will then be redeveloped.
City staff proposed to make minimal upgrades to the Gaukel Street building, and Conestoga College and its partners will carry the cost of the entire five-year project.

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