Old Calgary steel factory forges a new identity
Dominion Bridge's main tenant today is Blackline Safety, a high-tech company that wanted a new home base with tradition and character
Special to The Globe and Mail
Tuesday, June 11, 2019 – Print Edition, Page B5

CALGARY -- At first glance, you might not see a connection between a 92-year-old former iron foundry and an innovative hightechnology company.

The Dominion Bridge building in Calgary's Ramsay neighbourhood dates to 1927. In its steelmaking heyday, its products were used in the agriculture, mining and oil and gas industries. The steel beams used to build the observation deck of the Calgary Tower in 1968 came from this factory.

Dominion Bridge Co., founded in 1882 and with plants across Canada, was involved in some of the country's biggest projects, ranging from the Lions Gate Bridge in Vancouver to the massive Churchill Falls hydroelectric power station in Labrador. Dominion also made steel equipment for the war effort during the Second World War.

If a country has a spine, Canada's is made of steel - and much of that steel came from Dominion.

Blackline Safety, on the other hand, has one foot firmly in the future. The new main occupant of the Dominion Bridge building manufactures and sells wirelessly connected safety devices that can be worn by workers in remote or dangerous occupations to clients around the world. Its engineers and software developers design and build their own products, including the circuit boards used in their devices.

Among other things, these customizable, wearable safety devices can be made to detect 17 gasses or to recognize when someone has a fall. Alarms are sent to a 24-7 monitoring station in the Calgary office, which can have emergency services sent to the wearer's location.

How did a high-tech company end up in an old bricks-and-steel column building such as this?

Blackline had been operating in two facilities, one in Inglewood and one in nearby Ramsay, but needed to regroup into one location. "We spent almost a year, maybe a little over a year, looking at all sorts of different options.

We even toured some downtown buildings ... to see if it would answer their needs," says Justin Mayerchak, senior vice-president and partner with the Calgary office of real estate service Colliers International, who has helped Blackline with its space needs for seven years.

With vacancy rates in downtown Calgary still higher than 20 per cent after four years of economic hard times, there were serious attempts to lure Blackline and its 150 Calgary employees into the core. There were also options in the city's southern industrial areas.

Blackline chief operating officer Kevin Meyers says: "We looked at a ton of new buildings.

A lot of landlords were giving us some pretty sweet deals."

These siren calls from the downtown core and the south were easy to resist. Instead, the citywide search ended with Blackline moving around the corner to the Dominion Bridge building, leasing 24,300 square feet of the 35,000-sq.-ft. premises.

(A company called Absorb Software, which develops software for corporate learning, occupies 11,000 square feet on the top floor. F&D Scene Changes has the bulk of the industrial component of the building. It makes scenery for theatres, museums and shopping malls.)

Blackline felt a connection to the community, having operated in Inglewood and Ramsay since 2006. The connection with their own employees was also a factor.

"One of the requirements that we laid out was that we wanted to be within 10 minutes in any direction [of our former location] because when you have 150 staff, you want to make sure you're not putting anybody out," says Mr.

Meyers, showing a concern for the commuting convenience of staff.

Blackline also preferred a character space, one that not only fit its image of being innovative and entrepreneurial, but that would also inspire the creativity needed for high-tech work.

"It would be very easy to hit the deep south and find a building that suits our needs, but we like the character buildings, we like the older buildings. When we walked into this facility, we fell in love with the high ceilings, the brick, the steel columns," Mr.

Meyers says.

"One of the senior managers said it would be easy to slip into another building which has four walls with no character and slip into that Corporate America feeling. ... I think soul-sucking was the term used by some people.

Whereas you walk in here and it has so much character and it helps people with keeping a positive attitude, in keeping sharp, keeping focused."

Character can be a competitive business advantage, according to Brendon Cook, Blackline's chief technology officer and co-founder. "I would say we are challenged in the Calgary area to find talented software developers," he says. Blackline competes against the dominant energy sector in Calgary and software development houses to attract skilled developers. Having a character workspace is an important factor in recruitment and retention.

Put those workers in a cubicle farm and you'd probably lose half of them, Mr. Mayerchak says.

"Those folks will get very tired pretty quickly. It won't fit their culture very well."

It's more than the Dominion Bridge building that's the attraction; it's the Ramsay neighbourhood, which is unique in Calgary, mixing industrial, residential and retail elements, while being only a few minutes drive from downtown.

Across the street from Blackline's new facility are some attractive new homes, down the street is Ramsay School, and it's a stone's throw from the Calgary Stampede Grounds.

The residential mix in Ramsay, which was originally developed in the 1880s, ranges from little old houses to new, high-end luxury homes. There are popular restaurants and bars in Ramsay and neighbouring Inglewood. Employees can enjoy a pleasant stroll over the lunch hour and not feel as if they're trapped in a remote industrial park. "Inglewood and Ramsay feel like it's been gentrifying for 20 years. It's never fully changed, but every year, every couple of years, something new happens or some new building gets done and [people think] it's gonna happen, it's coming - and it never does take that next step," Mr. Mayerchak says.

"But that's almost what's romantic about the area, that it still maintains the charm of being a community that's been around for as long as it has and has all sorts of different uses and mixes of people in it."

One final connection between Blackline and Dominion is manufacturing. While making steel products in Canada may have been common in the 20th century, manufacturing high-tech products here in the 21st century is not. Most of that work is outsourced to Asia.

Indeed, 10 years ago, Blackline was having its products built in China, until Mr. Meyers studied the costs and found it could be done 15 per cent cheaper in Calgary. "Once you consider engineers having to fly over, once you consider inventory, duties, taxes, that whole bit, you're cheaper to do it here," he says. There's also improved quality and a quicker turnaround time for development of new products, he adds.

Blackline celebrates that manufacturing connection to Dominion. Its meeting rooms are named after prominent Dominion projects, with museum-style plaques providing history. The reception area shows the observation deck of the Calgary Tower under construction, revealing Dominion's steel skeleton.

The manufacturing mantle has been handed to a new generation.

Associated Graphic

The Dominion Bridge building in Calgary is home to Blackline Safety, which produces wireless safety devices worn by workers in remote or dangerous occupations.

Right: Any alarms set off are sent to a monitoring station in the Calgary office, which can have emergency services sent to the wearer's location.

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