The Town Of Ajax
Named after World War Two Royal Navy cruiser HMS Ajax, the Town of Ajax, Ontario is home to 110,000 residents and is ideally situated on the north shores of Lake Ontario, 25 kilometres east of Toronto. As 2015 marks its 60th anniversary, The Canadian Business Journal spoke with Lisa Hausz, Manager of Business Development and Marketing for the Town of Ajax about some exciting new transformative economic development initiatives.
Within the past five years Ajax has made a decisively conscious effort and commitment towards moving in a very specific direction for the advancement of its commercial base with a newly-formed, in-depth economic plan.
“When we started our economic development strategy, Council adopted a new one in 2010 and it really was borne out of a business retention strategy,” Hausz begins. “We were developing the program during the recession in the middle of 2009. It’s unique because it’s a 10-year strategy.”
As a result of this new defined strategy, Ajax has launched a number of programs to help businesses expand. One of those initiatives is what’s called a PriorityPATH, which is the Town’s streamline municipal process for business. Priority PATH helps connect the Town with businesses in their efforts to expand. It sets the end date of when businesses want to be open, and sets a critical path backwards.
“The businesses then work hand in hand with the economic development and our planning teams to make sure that both sides are meeting the timelines that they’ve laid out,” Hausz says.
Key economic drivers
Manufacturing has always been a main staple for Ajax and quite notably with the integral presence of aerospace and Messier-Bugatti-Dowty, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Safran SA, which designs and developments fully integrated landing gear systems.
“We have plastics and packaging, chemicals and automotive feeder plants as well so it’s a great mix of different industries that we have on the manufacturing side,” Hausz mentions.
Another burgeoning industry is in the health and wellness areas. With the hospital and a number of office buildings for physicians and specialists, Ajax is expecting considerable development in these key areas. Many of the new office builds in Ajax are specific to new medical, according to Hausz.
Tourism is also one of the main sectors being intently cultivated along with manufacturing. From a commercial perspective there is an inherent need to attract visitors and the product. It’s the product that the Town really pushes on the economic development side, which primarily refers to the hotel development that really got its legs last year. In attracting visitors, the recent Pan Am Games was huge in terms of putting Ajax on the map and the infrastructure that was put in place for the Games will be a legacy that can continue to promote tourism in Ajax and throughout the entire Durham Region. The business engagement factor is also another legacy of the 2015 Pan Am Games.
“We really were able to connect with a completely different group of businesses that do not engage with us on a regular basis,” Hausz remarks. “They’re not our manufacturers or business professional services, they are specific in the tourism area. All of our restaurants, bed & breakfasts, hotels, entertainment venues and some of our health and wellness were all engaged during the Games. It’s encouraging to have that connection moving forward.”
According to Hausz and executive staff members at the Town of Ajax the economic strategy has always been extremely simple and straightforward: it’s getting to know the fundamentals of the operational businesses and help them with expansion and promotion – and then repeat the process all over again.
“We’re hoping to see the businesses that have started here will become some of our larger employers,” Hausz says.
The hospital will always be a main pillar within the community and continue grow as it adds more specialists to the roster of professionals, but an off-shoot of those additions include chiropractors and private physicians and any of the established or expanding wellness areas.
“In those we see huge growth and it ties right in to tourism. There is an upswing to having a health-based tourism focus – ‘medical tourism’ they call it. While you’re here for other kinds of services, do you visit our restaurants, do you visit our entertainment areas while you’re here? We see that as a niche area for us that could grow based on the two sectors we’ve been focusing on,” Hausz states.
Durham… working together
An enormous benefit to the eight municipalities in Durham is the Business Advisory Centre Durham (BACD), a non-profit organization that serves an integral role in assisting with the commencement and acceleration of small business. The BACD just launched a new Pathways Program and there is also the Do it in Durham Entrepreneurship Week in mid-November, which is a collection of all of the events, showcases, workshops and seminars throughout the region. The two have been combined through one week in November to celebrate Global Entrepreneur Week.
“Our role in that has really been to host at least one event during that week and help promote the other events going on to the business network. Last year’s Do it in Durham promotion event was one of the top in the country on a number of events and engagements,” Hausz says.
Ajax also has an envious geographic location, which benefits commerce opportunities with Toronto being just to the west along Highway 401 as well as having a gateway to the east. In fact, that portion of Hwy 401 is often referred to as the Corridor of Commerce. With a sizable percentage of its employment lands serviced on both the north and south side of Hwy 401, Ajax provides excellent access to a wide variety of industries right off the country’s most travelled transportation artery.
There has also been substantial progress with the Durham Economic Development Partnership. Hausz says being able to pool resources helps to ensure there are no needless overlapping of services or programs.
“When there is a job created in Lifetime Athletic or the Lakeridge Auto Gallery we know they’re not necessarily living right here in Ajax but they are somewhere in Durham. Whatever jobs we create here have a ripple effect throughout the rest of the region. It’s the same with OPG and General Motors and with all of our universities – they all work together. We call them our big regional assets because they do employ right across the region and outside of Durham as well,” Hausz explains.
One of the key elements that Ajax prides itself on is having very specific levels of expertise. By contacting the Town through the Planning or Economic Development departments, staff is able to help lay out a plan and walk them (business owners) through the entire process. There are no surprises and no delays, because time is money, especially for small businesses when they are looking to expand.
“Our connection to the business support groups is excellent. With one call we can introduce a business to key contacts that makes them feel connected to the community right away,” Hausz emphasizes.
Joint business venture opportunities also run aplenty as the Town is equipped to provide rapid connections between people and companies that share common needs, expectations and requirements. By operating alongside the Durham Workforce Authority, the Town assembles as much data as possible through its corporate communications team, its business network and external partners as a means to connect new business to the labour scene.
Ajax hasn’t traditionally had core downtown but there has been a concerted move afoot to change that. The development in the described downtown core at Bayly and Harwood is another vital aspect for the Town’s growth and the image that it wants to project, not only for the locals but for people visiting from other areas.
“Seeing the Medallion development and Grand Harwood Place development, and looking to 2020 to 2025 and beyond is having that key heart of the town. We would want small business and professionals be part of it and have that whole downtown feel. The ultimate goal is to have that unique urban feel with all the amenities of a small town on the water,” Hausz says.
One of the primary tasks on the Town’s agenda is the zoning bylaw review, which has been led by the Planning team. The official plan has been approved and the focus is now squarely on zoning, which is called Zoning Our Future. Hausz says Town staff have spent a great deal of time on outreach efforts in order to elicit the thoughts and opinions of those in the business community who are at the centre of it all.
“This is really their chance to help us shape how the future of how zoning will affect their expansion investment. Even external parties that may be considering Ajax take a look at our plans and what we’re considering and provide us with some feedback,” she says.
The many different business groups in Ajax tend to engage differently and because of that it has become crucial for staff at the Town to intimately understand the wants and needs of each specific industry. For instance, Hausz says manufacturers really appreciate it when someone reaches out to them, whereas tourism groups are quicker to communicate with via email or the telephone while the smaller business groups have shown an affinity for early morning meetings. Additionally, Ajax holds a business networking event on a quarterly basis, which has grown tenfold over the past few years.
“We have a presenter of key initiatives and then there is the opportunity to network. We’ve got about 600 on our opt-in invite list just for the Ajax Business Network Group. We also have our Ajax Business LinkedIn Group, which is now over 300. We also do a newsletter at least twice a year or as substantial news comes forward,” Hausz says.
Businesses – or potential businesses – can also access the AjaxFirstForBusiness.ca website, which is specifically dedicated to economic development and business communication. Ajax is experiencing a period of growth that has been unmatched dating back to 1955 and the feeling is that the best is yet to come.
“We’re very excited and have had a number of recognitions over the past few years. We’re very pleased with our progress and want to share our great news,” Hausz says.