Located in the heart of southern Ontario’s Niagara Region, the City of St. Catharines is just 20km from the U.S. border and about a one-hour drive to Toronto. A close-knit community of 134,000, St. Catharines has been known for decades as “The Garden City” thanks to its beautiful parks, gardens, rivers, green spaces and recreational hiking trails. It was incorporated as a city in 1876, just nine years after Canadian Confederation.
As Niagara Region’s largest city, St. Catharines is the business hub that drives economic activity throughout the peninsula. St. Catharines is the northern entrance from Lake Ontario to the Welland Canal, which connects with Lake Erie and allows some 3,000 ocean and Great Lakes vessels to travel through the Great Lakes each year hauling millions of tonnes of goods around the world. Four of the canal’s locks are in the city and have become a noted tourist attraction.
The Canadian Business Journal recently spoke with St. Catharines Mayor Walter Sendzik and Economic Development Manager Brian York to get an update on the latest economic news in their city.
Healthcare In virtually every community the requirement for top quality healthcare is essential. It ranks at the very top of the list when it comes to the demands of citizens and stands as a competitive advantage when it comes to attracting jobs and investment. The Niagara Health System’s St. Catharines site and Walker Family Regional Cancer Centre is a $900 million state-of-the-art facility. Opened in March, 2013, Niagara’s 450,000 residents now have access to high quality healthcare and cancer treatment close to home, without having to travel to Hamilton or Toronto. In the first year, patients were offered complete services for cancer care, including 7,600 radiation treatments provided to 700 patients at the cancer centre.
The new healthcare complex replaced two aging hospitals, one dating back more than 100 years. In addition to replacing aging infrastructure, the new facility addressed a significant lack of cancer care services in Niagara. In its first year, the Walker Family Regional Cancer Centre delivered complete cancer care services, including 7,600 radiation treatments provided to 700 patients at the cancer centre.
For St. Catharines the investment in healthcare has provided an important catalyst on two fronts: an increase in families looking to come to settle in the city and more businesses and more businesses looking to invest there.
“In addition to modernizing the healthcare system for our community, it’s also acted as a beacon to attract families to the community. Now we’re going out and working with businesses that may be looking to locate back to Niagara and, we have a state-of-the-art hospital that’s part of our value proposition to private investors,” says Mayor Sendzik.
The new hospital has also meant increased interest from healthcare practitioners looking to work and settle in Niagara.
“With a brand new state-of-the-art healthcare facility offering more than one-million square feet of care in our community we’re able to attract more talent to our region,” adds York. “Physicians want to work in a new and progressive environment and that’s exactly what that institution offers.”
For decades St. Catharines has been well-served by the manufacturing sector and in particular the automotive industry with General Motors and a number of smaller auto-related components companies having provided stable, good-paying jobs. Over the past 15 years, General Motors has invested $1 billion in upgrades to enhance its St. Catharines transmission plant.
“It is an extremely efficient plant in the family of General Motors and we’re exceptionally proud of the workforce there,” York notes.
But a failsafe method of ensuring economic stability and growth is accomplished through diversification of industries. It not only provides a stronger base from within a community, but opens up potential opportunities for partnerships beyond a city’s border. That is the philosophy the executives at the City of St. Catharines have embraced.
Attracting New Business
While being competitive with the business on the other side of the street may have once been enough, today the competitor on the other side ofthe globe is equally as important. This is why the City of St. Catharines constantly strives to reduce the costs associated with doing business in the city. Business tax rates are exceptionally competitive in St. Catharines when compared to similar sized Ontario municipalities. In fact, they are better than most all others. Having a palatable business tax rate is a crucial selling point when encouraging new private investment to the community, and is essential to retaining existing business in St. Catharines.
“It’s a key pillar of our business retention and expansion strategy,” York confirms. “As a community that’s bound by a greenbelt, it’s extremely important that we start to grow inwardly and grow up.”
The city has also been gaining a reputation as a strong digital media hub for innovative technologies, including gaming, and in so doing, attracts young entrepreneurs with résumés loaded with tech savvy software skills. In fact, Niagara ranks first among Canadian cities for video game production, assisted by Ontario’s Interactive Digital Media Tax Credit. It’s an area that both Sendzik and York believe contains unlimited potential.
“When you look at the growth potential of what would be online technology and the creation of digital media content – we have Innovate Niagara and the Generator at One, which is an incubator for companies that specialize in digital interactive media, Sendzik says. Our downtown is home to an industry leader called Keyframe Digital that has about 35 to 40 employees located in the core, and we have Brock University and Niagara College who offer digital media programmng to complement the growth of this sector within the community.
Students, he adds, are learning the necessary skills at the local postsecondary institutions, which were developed to meet the demands of this emerging industry.
As a tier-one digital media content creator, Generator at One has already facilitated the creation of about 180 jobs through its incubating services in downtown St. Catharines. The city remains focused on the clustering and development of the digital media industry. This will help to position the next generation of businesses that want to be a part of that cluster. A key for any city and its quest for economic growth is the need to keep the younger generations engaged and willing to stay through new employment opportunities.
“It can be a long-term process because you have to have the jobs to match the skills they are graduating with,” admits Sendzik. “On the economic development side we’re focused on attracting business and encouraging local business growth that will provide the opportunities for the next generation of talent.”
There are currently about 18,000 young minds attending Brock University and another 9,000 at Niagara College. Sendzik and York say it is the responsibility of the community to help make those students realize they have a bright future in St. Catharines and with that, an ability to help mold its business landscape for generations to come. To accomplish that goal will require innovative thinking and attracting new businesses in different sectors in addition to the traditional enterprises that already have a foothold.
“Our Small Business Enterprise Centre, in partnership with the Province of Ontario manages a youth entrepreneurship program that is trying to keep those young graduates here through the development of new opportunities and becoming business owners and operators,” says York. “It averages about 4,000 inquires annually, which converts into new businesses in the community.”
Downtown St. Catharines is the only area within the Niagara Region designated as an Urban Growth Centre in the provincial government’s Places to Grow plan. The Garden City Plan is the guiding framework for revitalization of the downtown. With greenbelt lands to the east and west of the urban area that are designated for specialty crop production, St. Catharines is embracing the challenge to expand its economic base inwardly, targeting its downtown urban core for intensified growth.
Several major projects recently completed in the downtown core will undoubtedly be game-changers in the city’s effort to revitalize and diversify the types of businesses located there. First, there is the beautifully designed Meridian Centre, a 5,400-seat spectator facility. Opened in October, 2014, the Meridian Centre is the home for the Ontario Hockey League’s Niagara IceDogs and will host a variety of entertainment and sporting special events throughout the year.
“Since its opening we’ve had rock concerts, of course the IceDogs are there, the Canadian World Juniors practiced there leading up to their gold medal performance and an international ice skating event at the end of January,” remarks Sendzik. “It is a state-of-the-art facility and was designed to complement downtown revitalization. It is located in a very unique setting in the downtown area. It will be a catalyst for the service industry businesses that will benefit from the 5,400-plus people that will come to the games, take part in the concerts and the other performances.
One block to the north of the Meridian
Centre is the Performing Arts Centre, which is still under construction. Located adjacent to the new home of Brock University’s Marilyn I Walker School of Fine and Performing Arts, the area will become a cultural and educational hub in the core. When it opens in the fall of 2015 the PAC will boast four venues: a 775-seat concert hall; a 210-seat dance/theatre venue; a 300-seat recital hall and a 187-seat film venue.
In gathering the aggregate of just the Meridian Centre and the Performing Arts Centre, and the potential audience attendance, there could easily be as many as 7,000 people visiting the downtown on any given night. The expectation is that many consumers won’t just be spending money on a ticket for the event itself, but they will also be going out for dinner at one of the many local restaurants, and visiting some of the galleries and retail stores that offer yet another unique experience and a variety of different products.
“What you’re going to see in five years in downtown St. Catharines is a completely new looking city that is designed for the next 30 years,” Sendzik proudly says.
Local company Rankin Construction won the bid to build the Meridian Centre, which in in turn partnered with Ball Construction that specializes in building these types of spectator facilities.
“Rankin took the initiative to reach out to a company like Ball Construction to partner on the proposal,” Sendzik tells us. The partnership allowed for the expertise of Ball on the arena construction component side and Rankin on local knowledge and for their engineering expertise, so what you have is one of the most unique arenas in all of Canada in terms of where it’s located and how it links into the downtown.”
Other changes to the downtown include the Carlisle Street Parking Garage, which provides 600 additional parking spaces; the McMaster Family Health Care Clinic; relocating the Niagara Wine Route so it travels along St. Paul Street, and Innovate Niagara. A new $90 million Burgoyne Bridge is also in the process of being constructed. The bridge serves as a gateway that connects the west side of the city into the downtown over Twelve-Mile Creek, a natural waterway that was once part of the old Welland Canal. It’s estimated the new bridge will be completed by the summer of 2016. It’s yet another example of the modernization of St. Catharines.
“While it’s a replacement of an old bridge, it will provide bike lanes, pedestrian lanes and what will be a better flow of traffic. It complements the new buildings that are already opening and gives the downtown a new look,” Sendzik offers.
This is without a doubt the most dynamic period for explosive growth when it comes to infrastructure in St. Catharines and the benefitting results are still to come.
“It’s generational in scale, when you look at the sheer volume of public dollars that went into these buildings – it’s over $1 billion, from the hospital to Brock University and the college to the Performing Arts Centre and the arena,” states York. “We’re at that watershed moment where we’re going to leverage that investment and turn it into a private sector success story, where we attract business back and we build upon the local business base given that we are now a city designed for the next 30 to 50 years.”
Location, location, location. It’s a phrase often used when ranking the potential for success. As such, St. Catharines is definitely in an envious geographical position, with its direct link to Lake Ontario and the Welland Canal for lake transportation and also its proximity to Hamilton, Toronto and the U.S. border.
“It’s obvious and yet it’s our best kept secret,” says Sendzik. “We have to do a better job as a city and a region to better position our competitive advantages.”
The QEW widening project was a 10-year build, which included replacing five bridges. Now, the flow of traffic through St. Catharines is far better compared with the bottleneck of a decade ago when congestion served as a daily nightmare for commuters. That upgrade is one of the most important that comes to mind in recent history for anyone and everyone coming in and out of the city and it has yielded numerous positive results.
“The improvements along the QEW bring more traffic through our community; the investments we’ve made downtown give them the reason to stop in our community,” reflects York.
Noticeable along the stretch of the QEW are GO Transit buses, connecting Niagara Falls, St. Catharines and Grimsby to the Greater Toronto Area. But there is an ongoing push to have daily Go Train commuter service into Niagara. Many residents of the region commute to Hamilton or Toronto and having consistently scheduled train service would be a way to better connect Niagara to Canada’s largest economic hub. Pilot projects of the train service were overwhelmingly successful and there is now an aggressive push to make it a permanent program.
“It’s the No.1 priority for pretty much all 12 municipalities and the Region of Niagara when taking into consideration economic development, as there is also a push from our local MP and MPPs,” Sendzik confirms. “It’s the plug into the GTA economic powerhouse.”
The addition of such a mode of transportation would exponentially benefit Niagara and help to play a significant role in how the Niagara Region is viewed as being part of the GTA’s extended economy. It’s by no means the only factor that will drive economic development, but it will be a catalyst for people looking to balance the quality of life offered by living in Niagara while still having access to employment opportunities just beyond Niagara’s border. Sendzik says it will also act as a business attraction tool because there will be more people with specific skillsets living in St. Catharines and Niagara to which businesses will be able to leverage.
“Fundamentally it will be the most important provincial investment for the overall growth of our community,” says Sendzik. “While the healthcare investment was for the betterment of the physical health of our community, this will be for the economic health of our community.”
Sendzik has an extensive business background, having been an entrepreneur and CEO of the Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce, while also serving on the board of directors with a number of companies. There’s no doubt his solid background in business will serve him well now that he’s on the government’s side of the table.
“Largely the success of our community will be predicated on the attraction of private investment back into the community and driven by theability to keep the next generation of young people here and by creating a community in which young families have an opportunity to enjoy the same level of prosperity that my family has been able to enjoy thus far,” he says.
“It’s our time as a community to harness our potential and not see ourselves as the neighbours of Hamilton or Burlington.”
One of the primary approaches the City of St. Catharines embraces is the plan for building a regional tourism base, as opposed to a city-centric one in an effort to keep visitors in the region for a longer period of time. Just to the east of St. Catharines is the world famous Niagara Falls, which attracts 12 million visitors every year, but according to statistics the average stay in the Honeymoon Capital is surprisingly low, hovering between eight and 12 hours – which is not inclusive of one overnight stay.
“We as a region have to integrate our tourism assets so that when someone comes to the largest draw in Canada, which is Niagara Falls, they actually make a vacation out of it,” Sendzik emphasizes. “It’s not ‘let’s go to Niagara Falls for the day’ but rather ‘let’s go to Niagara for the week’ so that we can do sports-fishing on our lakeshores, come to the Niagara Wine Festival and spend the weekend or come to the Shaw Festival or the Henley Regatta rowing event.”
The Niagara Grape & Wine Festival is a non-profit organization that produces three of the biggest annual tourist attractions every year – the Niagara Icewine Festival in the winter, the Niagara New Vintage Festival in the summer and the Niagara Wine Festival in September. The fall festival has a longstanding history in the community and hosts a magnificent parade which is one of the largest in Canada with entrants from all across this country and the U.S. Combined, these wine-related festivals attract hundreds of thousands of visitors on an annual basis. The city has also worked closely with The Wine Council of Ontario to bring the Wine Route through the downtown core. The Wine Route, which includes more than 500 way-finding signs placed in strategic locations throughout the wine growing regions of Ontario, provides consumers with easy navigation to wineries, restaurants, accommodations and other experiences in the area.
This year St. Catharines is one of several cities that has been given the honour of being part of the 2015 Toronto Pan Am Games, hosting the rowing events on Martindale Pond, which is also home to the world-renowned Royal Canadian Henley Regatta.
“We’re extremely proud to host the world in July with international visitors joining us for a little under a week,” says York. “We’ve partnered with our community to the south, Welland, which will host the canoeing and kayaking and again bringing that regional approach to touring delegations, bringing in business groups as well as accommodating the tourists who want to stay here a while longer.”
Vision to the Future
There are also exciting plans for development on the site of the old General Motors property on Ontario Street, which consists of 54 acres of vacant industrial land. The land was recently purchased by Bayshore Groups. The new owner and the City have already begun to collaborate in an effort to maximize the potential benefits of that expansive parcel of land, which is located adjacent to the downtown core. It’s anticipated that shovels will be in the ground within the next two years on a multi-faceted development expected to be worth as much as $250 million. Reports of Bayshore’s potential plans include a low-rise retirement residence and a light manufacturing plant or a retirement home overlooking Twelve-Mile Creek. The land sloping down to Twelve Mile Creek would be the ideal location for biking and hiking trails.
“We have a generational opportunity to turn it into what our city can be through innovative infrastructure, employment lands and residential and commercial dwellings,” says Sendzik. “That entire area will be redesigned in the coming five to seven years.”
“I see the downtown thriving and growing upward,” says York. “I see more investment in real estate in the core – meaning condo units. I foresee a vibrant downtown; young and old with our creative cluster thriving. On the manufacturing front I see a more innovative, value-added sector.”
“The vision I have is that when someone comes over the Garden City Skyway and they see St. Catharines, I want them to feel like they are driving into a modern city with vibrant neighbourhoods that have grown up, not out. It’s a city that has new industry – not predicated only on steel and widget designs but it’s a diverse economy of new industry that attracts the next generation of leaders,” says Sendzik. “Over the next 10 years, St. Catharines will be a leading city that people are attracted to. We will be a magnet for people that want to be part of the excitement.”
It’s plain to see that many of those new economic seeds that have been planted are starting to bloom, and taking shape in the form of a brand new Garden City.