How one YK landlord helped small business flourish in pandemic
A Yellowknife landlord says a little courage, a dash of creativity, and a lot of patience helped to turn around the fortunes of a downtown building during this year’s pandemic.
Robert Warburton is the founder of CloudWorks, a company that specializes in what he calls “on-demand spaces for small businesses” in Yellowknife.
In March, the company assumed control of a 49 Street building that it dubbed CloudWorks Four. Days later, the Covid-19 pandemic began affecting the territory.
Warburton said it was a frightening time to have acquired a building, with space waiting to be filled at a time when businesses faced a range of restrictions.
Yet demand for space grew as the NWT slowly began to reopen.
Three businesses opened in the building during the pandemic, while four existing businesses moved in and expanded.
Haylee Turi, of Piercings by Haylee J, turned her side gig into a full-time business in CloudWorks Four. Blunt YK moved into the building and added four new hairdressing stations to help meet overwhelming demand for its services.
As of December 1, all of CloudWorks Four’s spaces will be rented – amounting to a Yellowknife downtown success story that was rare even before the pandemic.
Warburton said he’s been “happily surprised.”
“I think it speak to this unbelievable ability for people to hustle in the face of uncertainty here,” he said.
“What small businesses need – which is my entire business – is easy access to space, and the issue in Yellowknife is they don’t have that.”
Most commercial space in Yellowknife is owned by larger corporations headquartered in the south. Local politicians have railed against that model, arguing the city’s absentee landlords have little inclination to act in residents’ interests, but have so far appeared powerless in practice to alter it.
Warburton says his company tries to be flexible and accessible. As examples, he says CloudWorks won’t hold a tenant to a long-term lease if the business can’t afford it, and doesn’t hide any costs in negotiations. What’s listed is the price you pay.
“It keeps the barrier to entry low,” he said. “They can come in, they can test something, they can try something, and they don’t feel like they’re stuck.
“It’s like an incubation – taking a thing and incubating it until it’s a full-grown business.”
Warburton said he moved to Yellowknife in 2005, both driving and living in his car when he arrived.
“The city has been amazing to me. There’s so much opportunity here, and I think we can do amazing things with this town,” he said, “but we need to help our people out – we can’t just complain and moan and point to things.
“We need to do it. A great way I can help my community is I can activate the spaces. I can incubate businesses, which can help our economy, but it helps make it more enjoyable to go downtown.”
This coverage of the NWT’s business sector during the Covid-19 pandemic is sponsored by the NWT’s Department of Industry, Tourism, and Investment. Visit Buy North for more information on businesses near you.