About 80 per cent of the Vancouver Island Technology Park's office space remains empty, nine months after the provincial government began marketing it.

But with the futuristic Saanich centre set to officially open today, representatives of B.C. Buildings Corp. say the space will soon be snapped up.

Joe VanBelleghem, a consultant hired by BCBC to help manage the development said Tuesday that two new companies have just signed leases. He added that several more are in discussions to locate in the first phase of the park, which offers 165,000 square feet in the renovated former Glendale hospital for the mentally challenged.

"We're actually pleased how it's gone, considering the downturn following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks," VanBelleghem said.

The building's tenants come from a cross-section of companies, including research, pharmaceutical, health and computer software fields.

Despite the meltdown of dot.com and telecommunications companies, VanBelleghem said high-tech businesses remain a significant driver of the Victoria region's economy.

"People don't realize this, but high-tech has exceeded tourism in importance — it's over $1 billion in activity a year," he said.

The flameout of JDS Uniphase, which closed its Central Saanich offices and laid off more than 500 workers last year, was a major blow to the sector. However, Victoria has been less exposed to the telecom industry (JDS's field) than other communities and stands poised to benefit from other innovative companies looking for locations with a high quality of life, VanBelleghem said.

BCBC spent $11.9 million to renovate the empty Glendale hospital, a group of interconnected three-storey buildings in a pocket of rural Saanich, surrounding by forest views near Camosun College's Interurban campus.

The plan, hatched by the NDP government, was to convert the facility into a magnet for leading-edge companies.

The park incorporates water, lighting and energy efficiency into its design with innovative interiors and a grass parking lot that prevents rain runoff from flushing into nearby Viaduct Creek.

The project is the first in Canada to achieve certification under the U.S. Green Building Council's rating system for sustainable buildings. The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design system evaluates such aspects as sustainable sites, water efficiency, energy, materials and indoor environmental quality. The tech park has received a gold rating, the highest possible.

The Saanich facility fairly bristles with the latest technology including waterless urinals, low-flush toilets and Web-based phone systems.

Wiring and communications cables are placed beneath the floor or alternately on visible overhead tracks. These allow for flexible office arrangements. Similarly, offices use moveable walls, with built-in wiring and portable furniture that allows for spaces to be quickly reconfigured.

A common space is made available for high-tech businesses to make presentations and has already been used for a job hiring fair for Camosun College students.

The proximity of the college, plus links with UVic and Royal Roads University, also make the park an attractive proposition for potential tenants.

More than 50 per cent of computer studies graduates from Camosun end up going to the U.S. to find work. VanBelleghem said the park can provide a home for companies that can hire locally trained employees.

Still, the park is seeking tenants at a time when other developments, private and public, are gearing for high-tech businesses. GMC projects, for example, is planning more than 150,000-square-feet of office space in two buildings planned for 645-655 Tyee Road. UVic is planning a high-tech park of its own and other buildings like Shoal Point, the 13-storey mostly residential complex in James Bay, are providing ground-floor space for marine technology companies.

Doug Taylor, CEO of Vancouver Island Advanced Technology Centre (VIATeC), said the projects are not competing directly with the Saanich tech park. He added that the tech park is a long-overdue "showcase" that will provide a home for locally based companies now scattered across the southern Island. VIATeC is a 13-year-old non-profit organization that promotes development of tech businesses.

"Established local companies have grown and they need more space," said Taylor, who predicted the tech park will eventually fill up.

Peter Baillie, president of Epic Biosonics, is planning to move his hearing-aid company there from the Royal Oak business park in June. "I think it's just a really neat environment," said Baillie. "It's a campus-like setting with unique services."

Epic Biosonics has 30 employees but plans to grow significantly in 2004-05 and the park will allow it to do that, he said.

Baillie particularly likes the cycling amenities at the park, which include paths and special lockers for 180 bikes. The goal of the park is to have at least 50 per cent of workers commute by bicycle, bus, carpooling or other forms of alternative transportation.

In addition to the first phase, future plans call for the development of a further 235,000 square feet of offices in new buildings.

Other companies signed up for the park include ETrafffic Solutions, Jasco Research, Aspreva Pharmaceuticals and Omega Biosciences.