City of Oshawa

Developing a winning formula of economic diversification

The heart and soul of any successful municipality is enveloped by a combination of its residents and local businesses in conjunction with a capacity to jointly adapt to an ever-changing world. Such is the case for Oshawa, Ontario, a bustling community of about 160,000 people, which is unmistakably ahead of the curve in executing a robust, well-designed economic development plan that effectively serves to promote the diversification of its thriving business sector.

Located 60km east of Toronto, Oshawa is a city that offers a tremendous quality of life, excellent employment options in a variety of sectors and a wide assortment of leisure and recreational possibilities. Each of these fundamental livable assets are enhanced by an efficient transportation network that includes Highways 401 and 407 and a public transit network that includes VIA Rail and the provincially-run Go Transit trains and buses. Additionally, there is a busy airport that is used by at least 40 regional corporations as well as a deep-water port for the shipment of goods to international destinations.

Oshawa is approaching 67,000 cumulative jobs, which represents a 5% rate of growth since 2010. Impressively, there has been a 9% growth in small to medium-sized companies since 2011. It is within that realm where sustained expansion is most expected.

A plethora of salient transformations have been unveiled in Oshawa in recent years. Spearheading the comprehensive civic economic plan is Kyle Benham, Director, Economic Development Services, an experienced professional who has been in the position for just four months. However, in that short span he has already begun to make his mark, laying the groundwork for expanding upon many programs and initiatives while implementing additional strategies. The Canadian Business Journal recently spoke with Benham and long-time Mayor John Henry about the city’s numerous ongoing enterprise enhancements.

The ability to procure a seasoned professional with Benham’s vast experience was an explicit coup for Oshawa according to Mayor Henry. “Kyle has already done an amazing job. He’s well connected throughout our community. I had a great conversation with the manager of the Chamber of Commerce about how they’re working together to create some partnerships within our business community.”

Equipped with an undergraduate degree in political science from the University of California at Berkeley, Benham earned a Master’s degree in city planning from the University of Toronto. His municipal economic development career began as a city planner in Toronto. During his tenure he became a senior development officer and held several different management roles. Many of the initiatives he put in place are still being used to this day. He has also worked in Burlington and Milton, substantially enhancing the economic prosperity in those municipalities. Benham is a member of the Economic Development Council of Ontario, Economic Development Association of Canada, International Economic Development Council and Ontario Professional Planners Institute.

When the opportunity arose in Oshawa Benham was on the west end of the GTA. He felt it was the right position for his skillset, but did he want to move to the other side of Toronto? As with the vast majority of people outside the area, he also had the perception that Oshawa was a one-industry town.

“I started to do some research around the position and I soon realized that my perceptions of Oshawa were completely wrong,” Benham admits. “As I started to dig into it I noticed an economy that was able to turn itself around and position itself for future growth and those are the pieces that have been going on now for a while.”

Broadening Horizons

The city has evolved from a having a predominant concentration of manufacturing activity to one that has become far more diversified, and there isn’t an economist or financial analyst who wouldn’t say that’s a good thing. Healthcare, education and retail have emerged as key employment sectors. Over the past decade, healthcare and social services jobs grew by an astounding 39% representing 16% of the total jobs, while education jobs also expanded by 39%, representing 9.7% of all employment.

Although still significant overall, manufacturing now represents just 7.5% of the city’s total after having been as high as almost 50% at its peak. The positive news is that manufacturing remains a stable, high-paying industry contributor for thousands of people. Just recently General Motors agreed to a new contract that will see the production of a new line of trucks, ensuring the continued employment for about 2,500 workers.

“Oshawa is an exciting place and we make a lot of cars here,” says Mayor Henry. “But our diversification is immense.”

A vital component in any community is the level of healthcare services and Lakeridge Health Corporation is one of the largest community-based healthcare networks in the country. Not only does Oshawa have the largest hospital in Durham Region but it’s also home to the R.S. McLaughlin Durham Regional Cancer Center.

“We have great healthcare for our residents and it’s a big part of the economy of our city and the region,” Mayor Henry proudly says.

On the retail front, Ivanhoe Cambridge committed $230 million for the expansion of the Oshawa Centre, bringing the total gross leasable area of the shopping centre to more than 116,000 square metres, and the inclusion of another 60 retail outlets.

Energy, professional services, information technology and software development have also made colossal inroads that has led to many more jobs and spin-off opportunities within the community.

A fundamental reason for the tremendous success in diversifying the employment base in Oshawa can be directly attributed to the continued innovative advancements of the city’s post-secondary institutions. At the north end is the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UIOT) and Durham College. Queen’s University has a presence with its LHEARN Centre, situated in the middle of the hospital; and Trent University has a campus, which has now partnered with the University of Windsor in bringing in additional educational programs to meet the requirements of the evolving workforce in the 21st Century.

“We’ve got 20,000 students between the three main college and universities right now and they’ll add another 18,000 students over the next 10 to 15 years,” Benham reveals.

Durham College is set to build a $35 million new Centre for Collaborative Education while UIOT’s Software and Informatics Research Centre (SIRC) is under construction. The $33.5 million SIRC will be a hub for research in health and business analytics, IT security, networking, gaming, and software engineering. On the drawing board is UOIT’s plans for a new $100 million Centre for Advanced Research, Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

Traditionally, the bulk of employment has been south of Highway 401, including General Motors. But Benham believes there is a lot of underutilized land that needs to be reactivated. The first step to attracting more commerce in that area is to first establish the necessary buildings that will have the ability to accommodate more of the small to medium-sized operations.

“Globally, we’re not looking at attracting 5,000 employee plants anymore; they just don’t exist as much,” Benham notes. “The market really is for a number of 10,000- and 20,000-square foot industrial units that are going to be oriented towards advanced manufacturers – smaller firms, but those are the ones that are growing quickly.”

Another means of attracting additional commerce investment will be attained now that the Highway 407 East Extension was officially opened this past summer. It will provide a primary artery in and out of the city for the transportation of goods and services as well as a fast, reliable commuting route for the working public.

“Every major city in North America has a ring road of some type around the outside to move goods, people and services. So now we have a have a bypass in the northern part of the city of Oshawa that can help service the economy of the entire province,” Mayor Henry remarks.

The city is not targeting those vacant lands as advanced manufacturing opportunities but rather as IT-type businesses, media businesses and people who have large amounts of data.

Rapid expansion is very apparent in the north end of the city. Benham believes getting that corridor set up will prove beneficial in establishing an overall community picture. It’s where a lot of the new residential and enterprise growth is blossoming. “We’ve got literally hundreds of units under construction right now in terms of housing units. Another eight or nine subdivision applications that are in will create another neighborhood community of 20,000 people,” he says.

Business Development

The core of business success always begins with the dedication and talent level of the people involved. In Oshawa there is an excellent mix of skills, ranging from manufacturing labour to professionals such as engineers, architects, doctors, lawyers and accountants.

“When we start dealing with companies we are able to talk to them about meeting the full range of their labor needs here. There is not a shortage of hourly labour versus professional labour. There is an opportunity to have a stronger return on your investment by looking at the east, versus elsewhere in the GTA,” Benham says.

The executive airport has been a hidden gem for many years, but is now taking a more prominent role, in part due to the closure of Buttonville Airport but also due to an increase in business traffic. There are currently about 40 corporate clients that fly out of the airport. In the next five years corporate traffic is projected to increase by 50% and overall traffic by as much as 60%. Meanwhile, the port has really upped its game by making sure it had the rail service come in over the last couple of years. Now it has the opportunity to do much more multimodal tasks moving beyond bulk goods such as steel, salt, and oil products, which adds to the complete infrastructure picture.

While all signs point to the core sectors continuing to prosper, Benham believes there are several underrepresented business areas that are worth aggressively pursuing.

“I’d like to see the picture rounded out a bit more with an emphasis on some additional professional services firms. Given some of the infrastructure investments that UIOT is making, that is going to be a perfect kind of fit for us going forward,” he says. “I give the Mayor full credit. He’s one of our best spokespeople. He lives it, and breathes it and talks about it every day,” says Benham.

Numerous entrepreneurial opportunities are sprouting up with the Spark Centre at Core21 as well as at Durham College and UIOT. Spark Centre hosts working space for 240 businesses, offering private desks and co-working services. It has a vision to enhance entrepreneurial-minded individuals through the delivery of effective programs and technology as a means to compete as a world-class innovation cluster. Remarkably, startups in Oshawa have skyrocketed 51% since 2011. Mayor Henry and Benham astutely understand the passion that people with an entrepreneurial spirit want to unleash and they will do everything in their power to maximize that potential.

“When you have a young person with an idea what they need is little bit of coaching and being surrounded by people that can help through an incubator, like the Spark Centre, Core21. You can do really great things. We support that financially as a city and we’re just now starting to see some great things happening,” Mayor Henry says.

Downtown Renaissance

The downtown section of the city has always been a vibrant part of Oshawa’s history and its character, but there are exciting plans to further enhance its attractiveness both for residents and visitors alike. Included will be a $600 million mixed-use Medallion Redevelopment of a former brownfield site.

Benham and Mayor Henry say the plan is to add as many as 7,000 people within a five-minute walk of the downtown core, which will markedly change the overall dynamic in terms of the ability support higher-end retail and promote future office development to complement what already exists. The area is well served with about 60 restaurants and hotels complete with top-tier amenities and services.

“We’ve got some of the best investment opportunities and values in the GTA. Quite frankly other places are a little overvalued. If someone is looking to get a decent return on their investment, looking east is a really good strategic move at this point,” Benham states.


Sports and entertainment tourism is now and always has been a main staple in Oshawa. As of November 1, the downtown hockey arena was officially renamed after the initial 10-year, $1.6 million sponsorship agreement, signed in 2006 with General Motors Canada, expired. The arena complex is now known as the Tribute Communities Centre thanks to a brand new lucrative sponsorship deal with Tribute Communities. In 2015 the arena hosted both the boxing and weightlifting competitions for the Pan-Am Games. The facility’s main tenant, the OHL’s Oshawa Generals, hold the proud distinction of having sent more graduates to the NHL than any other junior hockey organization in Canada. The venue also attracts a number of major international acts such as Selena Gomez, Elton John and Cirque du Soleil, which in turn brings in people from other smaller communities that would not be able to land such big names in their own communities.

In addition to serving as the home to the Canadian Automotive Museum, Oshawa also has the well-known Robert McLaughlin Gallery, which has one of the largest collections of publicly-owned art anywhere in Ontario. At the airport is the Ontario Regimental Museum, which has a largest collection of antique working military vehicles in North America.

“Whether it’s our economic development department, my office or directly with City Council, we’re here to help,” Mayor Henry says. “We want to create that community that employs lots of people and allows them to live the great Canadian dream. If you’ve never been here, come and see us. We’re an amazing community full of friendly, talented people. It’s our time and we’re ready to shine.”

“We need to tell that Oshawa story,” Benham concludes. “If I didn’t know it – and I’m in the business – I can guarantee you that most of the residents in the GTA, and beyond, don’t know how things have changed. We need to start to get that message out.”
Twitter: @InvestOshawa and @OshawaCity

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