The Business Heart of Muskoka

Bracebridge, Ont., is positioning itself to be more than just a great tourist destination. Shaped by its proximity to Lake Muskoka as it connects to the lake by the Muskoka River, the area is renowned for its natural beauty, attracting visitors from across Ontario for leisure and recreation. Located in the heart of the Muskoka cottage country, just two hours drive from Toronto, Bracebridge offers great potential for business development. With its perfect fusion of peaceful natural environment, big city amenities and small town ambiance, the community is poised for sustainable, well-planned growth.

The Canadian Business Journal spoke with Mayor Graydon Smith and Cheryl Kelley, Director of Economic Development, about Bracebridge and its strategy for further business growth.

“We are at the very edge of the Canadian Shield an area known for its endless number of lakes, rivers and natural enclaves where people can come, enjoy nature at a very basic level, and get away from the hustle and bustle of city life. We have been a tourist destination since our incorporation as a town in 1875, some 139 years ago,” says Smith.

The Canadian Shield offers a unique natural environment and scenery that can’t be found anywhere else in the world. The movement of glaciers during the ice age scraped the bedrock clean, and today the Shield holds only a thin layer of soil on top of the bedrock with many bare outcrops. The region is typified by pines, lakes, bogs, and rock that create a uniquely Canadian natural environment.

“While tourism continues to play a major part in the local economy,” says Smith, “the level of entrepreneurial spirit in Muskoka has always been high, and the local economy is well diversified and ready for future growth. In the past decade, the area saw several factories and larger employers changing their business model and leaving the area. Since that time the town has worked incessantly to position itself for new investment and business attraction.

“Several major development projects are currently underway that will position the town as more than a tourism and leisure destination. We have put in place the programs that are to attract business. We have significantly changed our Community Improvement Plan and created incentives through programs such as our tax grant program and development charge grant program, and others to make our community more attractive for investment.  Now we are at the active stage of marketing and trumpeting to the rest of Ontario and the world that there is business potential and amenities in place for entrepreneurs to operate in the area. We have the land, strong technological support, and are opened for business. We are actively marketing ourselves to the sectors that we have identified: construction, geo-tech, healthcare, educational services and niche manufacturing,” says Smith.

“Our proximity to the GTA is an important driver for us, and we have very strong relationships in the GTA. For example, the shipping companies that operate from Bracebridge provide services to the GTA and the U.S. market, while at the same time are well positioned to provide services to central and northern Ontario. So we have the best of both worlds as well as solid business incentives from the economic development side of things,” says Smith. 

Bracebridge’s Economic Development Department spearheads the positioning of the town for growth. To assure that new business is well accommodated, the municipality partnered with a local construction company, making land available for new small- and medium-size business development. In this partnership, 22 lots have been created and new development is already underway. The Economic Development Department will continue to work with the developer to fill the lots with new prosperous businesses.

But Bracebrige is not singularly focused on business attraction alone. The town also works to attract youth and maintain its family oriented focus. “We have been able to attract expansion of both the Georgian College and Nipissing University campuses in Bracebridge. These institutions offer skilled trades training, arts, and programs in social services and healthcare. The addition of a student residence at Nipissing University means that we now have students from across Ontario,” says Kelley.

The town also focuses on attracting geo-techs to come and live in Bracebridge. According to Kelley, the town noted a high contingent of professionals such as architects, urban planners and engineers, as well as environmental scientists living in town. “The fact that these professionals can do their work remotely from virtually anywhere is a very interesting trend. We plan to continue to attract this sector to our great community,” says Kelley.

While Bracebridge’s beautiful natural environment will always be a crown gem of the Ontario tourism sector, the area has undeniable potential to also become another strong player in the Ontario economy, offering business incentives, natural beauty, and a closely knit community that makes living in Bracebridge a very competitive proposition. “We are one of the most vibrant communities anyone will ever experience. Being supportive is very important to our residents, and people move here because they want to be a part of it,” says Smith.