City of Oshawa

For many decades the City of Oshawa, Ontario had been known as the Automotive Capital of Canada due to the enormous economic impact General Motors of Canada and numerous reciprocal components companies attained within the community. While GM and associated manufacturing companies continue to prosper, albeit on a more scaled-down level, the city has become noticeably more diversified in its business base and the local economy has benefited from it.

A fundamental reason for the success in diversifying the employment base in Oshawa can be directly attributed to the innovative advancements coming out of the city’s higher learning centres: Durham College; the University of Ontario Institute of Technology; the LHEARN Centre, as part of Queen’s University, situated in the middle of the hospital in the Lakeridge Health Education and Research Network; and Trent University with a standalone campus.

The Canadian Business Journal recently spoke with Oshawa Mayor John Henry and the city’s Director of Economic Development Services, Kyle Benham about some of the key economic initiatives taking place in their city of 168,000 people.

“Pickup trucks being made again in Oshawa are a great story. They just started production as of February of this year after losing them about 10 years ago. General Motors’ reinvestment into the plant is well over $500 million and that’s incredibly exciting,” begins Mayor Henry.

Two other notable achievements are the reinventing of the Oshawa shopping centre and the investment by Ivanhoe Cambridge resulted in the addition of 60 new stores to the shopping centre and 1,000 jobs in 2017 and the complete reinventing of the downtown core.

“Apartment buildings are being built and people are moving back to the downtown. Healthcare, advanced manufacturing and education – UOIT, Durham College, Trent University and Queen’s – and what they’ve been able to do for our community have been incredible,” says Henry.

Investment and Diversification

Investment opportunities can come in any number of forms. The city of Oshawa often targets partnerships in the United States; however the city does work very closely with the Region and its economic development department in seeking out new markets worldwide.

Since joining as a senior official with Oshawa two years ago Benham and his team have initiated a number of new programs that has helped move the economic plan to a point where they are now somewhat ahead of schedule. The building blocks have been put in place for a solid foundation that will allow the economic development team to push forward with a robust agenda.

“I would be inclined to say it’s almost in advance of where we hoped it would be. We’ve seen a complete economic transformation and have become much more diversified,” he says.

The city was once predominantly recognized as one of the main manufacturing hubs in Ontario and while the industry remains an integral cog in the overall economic picture, the diversification process has helped insulate Oshawa against any sizable collapses that have negatively impacted on a number of other municipalities that were either unwilling or unable to transform with the changing times. Many towns and cities have been victimized by a lack of alternative employment options and are paying the economic price for it. It’s something the leaders in Oshawa have been cognizant about for a long time and won’t let that same problem afflict their community. While new business sectors are vital to success, the traditional ones are still essential within the marketplace.

“About 10% of our economy is advanced manufacturing-based,” confirms Henry.

“The story of this community is somewhat different than any other city because we help build Canada,” continues Henry. “In 1899 when the Carriage factory in downtown burned to the ground it was owned by the McLaughlin family. The town of Oshawa lent the McLaughlin’s $50,000 over 20 years to rebuild that Carriage Plant, which turned into the McLaughlin Motor Car Company and it in turn evolved into General Motors of Canada. We helped create one of the greatest entrepreneurs in the history of this country, maybe even the world.”

In North America there has been a notable slippage within the traditional manufacturing sector but Oshawa has managed to buck the trend and has stabilized over the past eight years, and in fact there are now signs of a regrowth pattern.

“Ten per cent is a healthy amount. Healthcare would be our largest employer, accounting for about 16% of the jobs, with education and manufacturing tied at about 10%, so we’ve really created quite a balanced economy during this last decade,” adds Benham.

It’s not only General Motors that has had a positive rebound in the city. Companies such as EHC Global have become widely known internationally. If you’ve ever been on an escalator and put your hand on the black piece of vinyl on the handrail, then you’ve experienced the work of EHC, which is headquartered in Oshawa and has manufacturing plants throughout the world.

“We have a number of interesting companies. One that comes to mind is Cleeve Technology International, a hi-tech company of the aerospace and defense industries. We’re also home to a new steel fabrication plant down by our waterfront and of course we’ve got our port that is active for importing goods but we also ship grains,” says Henry.

On the transportation front Oshawa has an airport that is larger than Buttonville and Toronto’s Billy Bishop in physical size, but doesn’t have scheduled air service. However, it still manages to deliver $80 million to the local economy and employs nearly 400 people. Companies based out of the airport include the likes of Enterprise Airlines, which goes around the world on climate-mapping expeditions.

Healthcare, advanced manufacturing and education lead the established local economy but sectors such as retail, professional services and energy continue to gain a considerable amount of traction.

“The Darlington project and the refurb of Reactor No.2, and the recent announcement to refurb Reactor No.3 is really exciting. It’s a big employer in our community and they are great community partners. That refurbishment is a minimum of 10 years of construction, just to finish No.2 with a very large technical workforce. People are coming from all over the province to work for Ontario Power Generation or one of the contractor sub-trades,” says Henry.

Another fantastic benefit for the city is that it owns its own energy utility. The Oshawa Public Utilities Corporation is a standalone entity with the city being the only shareholder, which allows for far greater flexibility than would be afforded at most of the larger utilities. It services the supply of electricity to residential and commercial customers in the Oshawa area.

“On the energy side, Oshawa Power and Utilities Corporation is really setting the standard for service levels in Ontario in terms of reliability,” says Benham.

The Oshawa PUC recently fielded an investment inquiry from China about setting up a cloud-computing centre. Oshawa was the only city in Ontario that was able to find a way to accommodate the load requirements.

“We are in competition with Quebec and Manitoba so we may not get that project but it was really interesting to see that our utility was the only one that could actually step up to plate and provide what they were looking to achieve,” Benham proudly states.

“Our team at the city has done an excellent job at streamlining the process. The proof is that the corporation had its best year ever in 2017 for permits and development at $614 million. The best year prior to that was 2015 when we did $550 million,” reveals Henry.

Both UOIT and Durham College had additional infrastructure developments that will further emphasize higher education in the region. At Durham College it’s a Center for Collaborative Education while UOIT has a brand new state-of-the-art Software and Informatics Research Centre.

“UOIT’s building is up and running and the college’s building will be open for September. Just recently some members of Council had the chance to tour it with the president of Durham College, Don Lovisa, and showed us where they are in the process,” says Henry.

International Partnerships

“On the entrepreneurship side we’re working with our innovative Spark Centre. They’ve got a couple of great initiatives underway including a partnership with the Beijing Science Park in order to have an entrepreneur exchange. We can bring in Chinese entrepreneurs and send our Canadian entrepreneurs to the Chinese market. That initiative is now starting to ramp up,” says Benham.

The primary role of the Spark Centre is to provide counselling and assistance as well as mentoring support to innovative technological startup companies to help facilitate a globally recognized technology and innovation ecosystem developing competitive, world-class businesses. To date, the not-for-profit organization has assisted more than 800 clients to further pollinate their entrepreneurial vision.

An entrepreneurship Visa program to the Spark Centre has also been initiated by the city, which helps streamline international entrepreneurs’ ability to enter Canada. The program was put in place about eight months ago and there are now about 90 companies in the queue to come into Canada and start working through the Oshawa portal.

“That is going to be great for us moving forward in terms of establishing our presence internationally as well as being a very positive and open reception centre for entrepreneurs who are coming into the North American market,” says Benham.

“The great news about Oshawa is that we have 22,000 young people going to school and 1,000 of them are international students. When you go downtown into the heart of our city you can just watch the changes that are going on and a lot of those students are going back to where they come from and telling the story of Oshawa and Durham and some are staying,” says Henry.

“With Metrolinx coming in to the heart of downtown and us filling our downtown with condos and apartment buildings we’re really starting to attract a crowd to the downtown which has reinvented our downtown,” continues Henry.

“One building was finished last year, we’ve got two on the books for this year and then the big project will be next year, so we’re still on track for having 6,000 to 7,000 people moving into the downtown core,” says Benham.

Attractions and Events

A major attraction for both locals and tourists is the Robert McLaughlin Art Gallery, which has the fifth-largest collection of publicly owned art in Ontario. Rounding out the cultural sophistication of the city are several accomplished theatre groups. Canada’s Automotive Museum and the Regimental Museum are also immensely popular with the public.

“We have one of the largest collections of antique working military vehicles in North America at our airport where you can come to town and get a ride in a tank,” says Henry.

For sports fans, you can’t mention Oshawa without conjuring up a discussion about the legendary Generals franchise of the Ontario Hockey League, who play their games out of the 5,180-seat Tribute Communities Centre. The team has won five Memorial Cup championships since being founded 80 years ago.

Fiesta Week inclusively celebrates all the cultures that comprise the makeup of the city. It’s been an annual tradition since 1961 and it all kicks off with a huge parade on Father’s Day. There are also celebrations for First Nations and Metis people and Oshawa also boasts one of the largest Canada Day celebrations anywhere in the country on the resplendent waterfront.

“We’ve been talking with a number of communities across Ontario and it seems generally accepted that you should have about 200 events throughout the course of the year if you’re really active,” explains Benham. “At first we thought that sounded like a lot, but then we stepped back and started looking at the number of sporting events, concerts, events at community centres and the many festivals and we came to realize that we hit that 200-event plateau without even trying. In many ways our main challenge is to let the world know about us and what’s already happening here.”

Heading Towards 2020

In February, Minister of Economic Development and Growth Steven Del Duca announced a $4 million investment to enhance UOIT’s Automotive Centre of Excellence (ACE). The funding will allow the university to install a moving ground plane, a giant belt that acts as a road moving under a vehicle. The government is kicking in $3.1 million, while auto parts leader Magna International is providing about $780,000.

The moving ground plane will be incorporated into the existing wind tunnel facilities at the ACE, one of the largest in the world and can simulate wind speeds up to 300 km/h, and temperatures from -40 to 60 degrees Celsius.

“The wind tunnel is the first of its kind with a variable wind speed capability. To have that kind of technology in this community with investment from Magna and the province is pretty amazing,” says Henry.

Meanwhile, Durham College has just initiated one of the first Artificial Intelligence centres in Canada and much of the work around AI is very much focused on the high research academic level.

“The college has created a program where they are able to take it out to small to medium-sized companies, and that’s a game changer. We are the only community involved in that type of initiative,” says Benham.

Also within the realm of AI is a proposal that’s currently circulating across Ontario to establish a number of autonomous- vehicle technology demonstration centres. There will be five or six of them moving forward and Oshawa is slated to become one of those.

The Durham Regional bus transit route moves 1.4 million people right. On the Simcoe Street corridor bus route, more than 840,000 passengers use public transit on an annual basis providing easy access to connecting buses, the train station, retail shopping, entertainment venues and many other amenities. Expansion of the Go Train service has sparked tremendous interest from the real estate community, which is started to assemble the lands down with respect to new development and it’s added more confidence to the whole downtown revitalization plan.

“Within a two-year window we’re looking at Metrolinx bringing the train to the heart of downtown Oshawa and that will help us reinvent some lands that have been vacant for a long time. Building that future for young people is the future of walkability and I think we’re doing an excellent job in getting to that point,” says Henry.

“We are also in a position right now with our partnerships to become more recognized as a leading community in technology development as we move towards 2020,” adds Benham.

“For the longest time we’ve been in the shadow, but I think for now the sun touches Oshawa before it touches Toronto,” jokes Henry. “We now have a large number of people that do a reverse commute to work in Oshawa. For young people it’s much more affordable when buying a home and you have a driveway and a back yard. Oshawa is a great place to live and work.”