Podcast: Waiting for downtown workers, Salesforce in Kanata, gym closures create entrepreneurial opportunity

Editor's Note

Behind the Headlines is sponsored by Nelligan Law.

In this Behind the Headlines podcast episode, OBJ publisher Michael Curran speaks with OBJ editors David Sali and Peter Kovessy about some of the week’s biggest local business stories.

This is an edited transcript of the panel discussion. To hear the full interview, please watch the video above. Prefer an audio version of this podcast? Listen to it on SoundCloud or Spotify.

MC: More than a year into the pandemic, many Ottawa neighbourhoods have regained a sense of normalcy. But downtown Ottawa looks anything but normal. In fact, the city’s central business district looks the same as in the early days of the pandemic. Every office tower seems cavernous and empty, giving rise to a legion of forgotten retailers and service businesses searching for answers. Peter, despite all the good news we’re hearing about vaccines, few people are predicting that workers will be rushing back to offices. While there are no easy answers to the challenges facing these small businesses that cater to office workers, what are some strategies that could help them out?

PK: One thing that the Sparks Street BIA was hoping to hear this spring was some sort of plan from the federal government, which is the largest tenant in Ottawa. Longer term, the business association is hoping to see a more diverse mix of prospective customers downtown – namely, more residents to balance the traditionally large number of office workers. While that’s been a goal of many local policymakers for well over a decade, even before the pandemic, we saw several examples of downtown office buildings – typically older class-C space – being converted into apartments. Something I’ve heard repeatedly over the last year is how the pandemic has accelerated certain trends and developments that were in the works prior to 2020. If indeed we see a decline in demand for office space, we may see more older buildings undergoing conversions and more residents in the core.

MC: One of the world’s biggest software companies is coming to Kanata – sort of. California-based Salesforce has signed on as an anchor sponsor for a new meeting and events hub in Kanata North. While Salesforce isn’t establishing a physical office in the city just yet, there’s more to this story than a typical sponsorship deal. Dave, what is the significance of this agreement?

DS: Salesforce is going to offer its expertise through seminars at this new meeting and events centre, located in Mitel’s former headquarters and dubbed “Hub350,” as well as be involved in a new leadership council aimed at chief information and technology officers from Kanata-based firms. The Kanata North Business Association is hoping this is the first step in Salesforce’s involvement in the local tech park and that it encourages some other companies in Silicon Valley to notice that there’s a lot of things happening in Kanata.

MC: Our final story might appear to just be a colourful entrepreneurial tale – two local residents have started a side hustle manufacturing custom dumbbells and barbell plates made out of concrete. But this is actually another example of how COVID-19 is distorting some markets for traditional consumer products and creating new opportunities for innovative thinkers.

PK: Gyms and fitness centres are among the many businesses that have really been riding a roller-coaster ride of opening, closures and reduced capacity. That’s had many of their customers exploring home fitness equipment. And just as it’s been tricky to find a bicycle this spring, it’s been hard for some to purchase weights and other exercise gear. Garage Gym Guys is a side hustle started by two Ottawa-based project managers who were having trouble buying new gear and were shocked by the prices of used gear on Kijiji. So far, their custom-manufactured concrete weights have been a hit. On the first day they started advertising, they received more than 30 orders totalling nearly $2,000. Now the big question is whether there is going to be a permanent post-pandemic shift towards exercising at home amid the rise of platforms such as Peloton. Garage Gym Guys are banking on it and hope to move into a larger manufacturing space later this year.