Whitehorse entrepreneurs pitch 4-storey NGO 'hub'

·3 min read
Mel Johnson and Luann Baker-Johnson at Lumel Studios, the glass-blowing facility they opened a few years ago in Whitehorse. Now they want to build an office building next door to Lumel, with affordable space for non-governmental organizations (NGOs). (Sandi Coleman/CBC - image credit)
Mel Johnson and Luann Baker-Johnson at Lumel Studios, the glass-blowing facility they opened a few years ago in Whitehorse. Now they want to build an office building next door to Lumel, with affordable space for non-governmental organizations (NGOs). (Sandi Coleman/CBC - image credit)

Luann Baker-Johnson says she always figured the parking lot adjacent to her Whitehorse business, Lumel Studio, could be something more.

"It is the middle of a pandemic, and you come up with a crazy idea sometimes in the harshest times," she said.

"There was always this potential over here. We never knew exactly what it should be."

Now she and her husband, Mel Johnson, have hatched an ambitious plan to build a new four-storey building that will provide low-cost office space to non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

Baker-Johnson says office space is hard to find in Whitehorse, and many NGOs have been desperate for options.

"We wouldn't build a large building to have just commercial space," Johnson said.

"[Ensuring] that we've got a spot for NGOs to work more effectively together, to serve the population here, is just so, so important."

The couple presented their plan at a news conference this week, standing alongside Sue Edelman, co-chair of the Hub Steering Committee.

Baker-Johnson, right, shows off plans for the building this week to Whitehorse MLAs Emily Tredger and Kate White.
Baker-Johnson, right, shows off plans for the building this week to Whitehorse MLAs Emily Tredger and Kate White.(Julien Gignac/CBC)

Edelman says NGOs are often the "poor cousin" to the business sector. Having a solid home base to work out of and be able to share ideas and resources will be a big boost.

"NGOs, they move around all the time. I don't know if people know that, but they constantly move around and they've all got, you know, 89 printers and 1,700 computers," Edelman said.

"This is an opportunity for you to share really good business materials and to buy paper in bulk and it just makes sense," Edelman said.

'We're not going to do this in a vacuum'

The plan is take a few years to develop the building. The first step is to talk to different organizations about their hopes and needs. If all goes well, they hope to see the new hub buzzing with activity by 2024.

"We're not going to do this in a vacuum. We're going to do this very openly and transparently, working with the NGOs, working with the public as well [and] First Nations to find out what really makes sense here," said Baker-Johnson.

"We've been working with arts groups, we've been working with heritage groups, health and social services groups.... What's different about this particular enterprise is that it's cross-sector — and that's unusual."

The proposed building would go in the lot adjacent to Lumel Studios in Whitehorse.
The proposed building would go in the lot adjacent to Lumel Studios in Whitehorse.(Paul Tukker/CBC)

Of course, funding is an issue and Baker-Johnson and Johnson say that's part of the work to be done.

"We're not thinking that there's going to be a whole lot of funding out there, but we're looking and we will be talking to all levels of government to see what the interest is," said Johnson.

"Certainly the case for supporting the NGOs and creating efficiencies and working on the productivity ... all makes a whole lot of sense."

Baker-Johnson says their goal is not to turn a profit with high rents. If they can ultimately cover costs, that will be enough, she says.

"It's a community effort. We need to support that building, but we just need to support it — we don't need to make money off of our building."