Town of Oakville
By Angus Gillespie
From a nationwide perspective, the beautiful Town of Oakville, Ontario has become synonymous through the years as the frequent host of the PGA Canadian Open golf tournament, and while that internationally acclaimed sporting event conveys immense prestige, it does not even begin to scratch the surface in terms of what the Town has to offer by way of its vast business activities and growth opportunities. The scale of economic development being undertaken in the community of nearly 200,000, situated 35km southwest of Toronto on the western shores of Lake Ontario, is truly astounding.
With a rich history and heritage dating back to 1827, and incorporation in 1857, the Town has come a long way since those early formative years when it was primarily known for farming, shipbuilding and lumber shipments. Oakville is one of four municipalities that comprise Halton Region, which continues to benefit from being one of the fastest growth-rate areas anywhere in the country.
Today, Oakville is strongly supported by the professional services sectors and life sciences along with a high-tech digital media hub, which is anchored by the hardiness emanating from Sheridan College. The auto sector and other types of manufacturing such as advanced aerospace have also experienced exponential advancement.
Additionally, several development projects were set in motion in 2014, including numerous new construction commercial permits being awarded, valued at $105 million.
There were also over 20 industrial and institutional projects valued at over $239 million. New office projects continue at a fast pace in 2015.
The Canadian Business Journal recently spoke with Oakville Mayor Rob Burton and Dorothy St. George, Director, Economic Development, about the Town’s plentiful business achievements and corporate municipal plans heading into the future, already anchored by a bevy of well-known multinational enterprises.
“We’ve got long-established companies like The Weather Network and GE Water & Process Technologies as well as recent additions to the landscape including Innomar Strategies AmerisourceBergen, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Canadian Tire Financial Services, and the Canadian head office for Siemens Canada,” says St. George.
As the primary transportation route through town, the QEW employment corridor includes companies such as the aforementioned Siemens and UTC Aerospace Systems – Landing Systems, which is one of Oakville’s largest private-sector employers with about 900 on the payroll. In December 2014, it was announced the company was again identified as one of the top employers in the Greater Toronto Area.
Oakville is also the head office location for Tim Hortons and Ford Motor Company of Canada, with the automaker having long been the largest employer in Town and aiming to keep that status following a recent long-term commitment to produce the popular Ford Edge crossover vehicle at its massive assembly plant, situated right next to the corporate Canadian head office.
“Their employment is now touching 5,000 and that’s certainly a high-water mark in my life,” says Mayor Burton.
One year ago 3,400 employees were employed at Ford prior to a major announcement when an additional 1,000 people were brought on board. The company has brought that work in-house to develop a particular global platform. It was recently announced another 400 jobs were created.
“Securing that investment was important for Ford and equally important to the Canadian automotive industry,” says St. George.
The crucial importance of the auto sector to Oakville is highlighted by Burton’s active contribution as chair of the Ontario Auto Mayors, which consists of a group of mayors from across the province who engage with stakeholders in collaborative efforts at the provincial and federal levels to promote awareness, advocacy and strategic policy initiatives to strengthen the Canadian economy by keeping the automotive sector robust.
“This is an excellent example of partnership and investment between governments and the auto-motive sector that resulted in job creation and will stimulate the Canadian economy. Ford Motor Company’s Oakville plant remains in a position to successfully compete nationally and globally,” says Mayor Burton.
The initial Auto Mayors summit was held in November, 2013 and enormous momentum has continued to expand from that time. They are now marshalling the key stakeholders for development of provincial auto manufacturing policies.
One of these key stakeholders is a group led by Dr. Charlotte Yates out of McMaster University called the Automotive Policy Research Centre (APRC). These researchers from across the province examine the impacts of government policy on the automotive industry. The Auto Mayors will soon be meeting with the APRC who will outline a policy framework. The provincial automotive unit will also be at the meeting to present the Province’s strategic focus and some of the initiatives in which they are involved.
“The work of the Auto Mayors is about connecting all those stakeholders and working towards a provincial-national policy strategy,” adds St. George.
A delegation of Auto Mayors met with Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne last August where she indicated her support of the work done by the Auto Mayors and encouraged them to work with Brad Duguid, Minister of Economic Development, Employment and Infrastructure to help shape an auto strategy.
The auto industry has multitudinous tentacles that delve extensively into the Canadian economy all the way to resource extraction and processing. As a result, one of the initiatives Mayor Burton is looking to accomplish is to extend the Ontario Auto Mayors right across the country to reflect those far-flung regions from Quebec to British Columbia. He clearly envisions widespread expansion beyond the nearly 20 mayors currently participating.
“We’ve brought industry, labour, academics, suppliers and parts manufacturers together for this purpose,” he says. “One of the first things the Auto Mayors learned is the long tail of this industry. That’s many more mayors we can ask to join us and allies to recruit. One of the first things the Auto Mayors learned is the long tail of this industry. We’ve brought industry, labour, academics, suppliers and parts manufacturers together for this purpose. Providing this knowledge was critical to recruitment of more mayors and in creating partnerships with experts in the industry.”
Small-town Charm, Big-city Features
A noteworthy uniqueness of Oakville stems from its considerable growth over the past 20 years while still managing to maintain a wonderful small-town charm. It has all the offerings of a quaint bedroom community, while at the same time effectively serving as the home base for a number of large multinational corporations and an overall diversified business base, both white collar and blue collar.
Much of the growth pattern in Oakville is with office development and the Town is benefitting from a geographic location whereby companies are undertaking consolidation.
“We’ve got an amazing brand that we have created through hard work and a little bit of good luck in our great location. But if you don’t work at what you’ve got you can lose it no matter how fortunate you are at the start,” says Mayor Burton.
Another big bonus centres on a recent change to 30-minute GO Transit rail service from Toronto during core hours, which allows for a reverse commute whereby the journey for Toronto residents working in Oakville has been made that much more efficient.
“Oakville has traditionally been viewed as a community that is a nice place to live and raise a family. With such an increase in the knowledge-based industries there are more and more opportunities to be able to live and work here,” says St. George. “We’ve got a really great diversity of companies here that are continuing to attract international attention and investment.”
The well-documented proximity to Toronto and the U.S. border is an important asset for the professional services sectors and others. Rapid growth in the life sciences sector is resulting in the development of a significant employment zone adjacent to the new hospital. Focusing on those life sciences in pharmaceutical, biotech and research, Oakville is in a fantastic geographic position as the centre of a life sciences corridor between Toronto and Hamilton.
On the digital media side, Sheridan College continues to be a leader in specialized programs and research especially as it pertains to the screen industries, having been dubbed the Harvard of animation, and with alumni and faculty winning countless awards over the years.
“For years, Sheridan has been growing the talent in Oakville with many of their graduates leaving to work in California with companies like Disney, Pixar and DreamWorks”, says St. George. “Now we’re starting to gain the interest of U.S. companies who want to locate here. We’re seeing the interest internationally in Oakville because of the strength coming from Sheridan College. We’re growing that digital media sector organically, with grassroots organizations contributing to the energy here.”
Main Street Districts
There is a commitment to continuous advancement of our main street districts as the Town works closely with the Business Improvement Areas (BIAs) in developing studies and strategies to keep the retail industry vibrant. An in-depth study is currently underway looking at the Town’s infrastructure; the Performing Arts Centre, the library, and building a cultural hub in the downtown area. There is long-term planning for how to keep the downtown core vibrant and meeting the demand of the community.
“We have three historic shopping districts: Bronte Village, Kerr Village and Downtown Oakville. In all three cases we keep a hands-on approach and the BIAs (Business Improvement Areas) don’t toil in isolation. We promote interaction and cross fertilization,” says Mayor Burton.
There are a number of Town departments that get directly involved with the BIAs, with a coordinated approach to economic development whether it is infrastructure needs, event planning or partnerships.
A plethora of fantastic festivals are held each year in Oakville that not only resonate with the local residents, but also visitors as well; there is always something fun for everyone. Among some of the more notable festivals include: the Jazz Festival, Love of the Arts, Midnight Madness and Ribfest. Over the years Waterfront Festivals have also been very popular, drawing thousands of people with such well-known headlining musical acts as Oakville resident Tom Cochrane, Great Big Sea, Alannah Myles, Blue Rodeo, Jann Arden and Colin James performing on the main stage.
“Our events are an important part of the entertainment calendar for our residents and neighbours. All of our BIAs are significantly invested in events that seek to expose their area to visitors who otherwise might not have seen it and hope they will come back,” says Mayor Burton.
Upon eliciting opinions about Oakville, quite often the downtown will be mentioned first, but the strength of the Bronte BIA and the interesting shops, boutiques and restaurants in Kerr Village are every bit as integral to the community’s image and success. Quite simply, people have a knack of being able to find their own little gems in various parts of Town. There’s always been such a great buzz about the positivity of the community and the strength of those commercial main streets enhances the town’s livability and attractiveness, which is so important to people and one of the main reasons why they love to call Oakville their home.
Oakville is a fully-featured and integrated community with all the services and amenities one could imagine. Burton often likes to coin a phrase by one of his mayoral predecessors, Harry Barrett, who led the Town more than 40 years ago when the population stood at no more than 70,000. “Oakville is a city that calls itself a town and feels like a village.” Mayor Burton firmly believes that phrase is at the core of the Town’s success. “It’s our livability that drives our economic success,” he states.
Whether communicated through pictures or by words, it is remarkably difficult to capture the true character, personality and essence of what Oakville is all about. St. George mentions a site selector visited from the U.S. several years ago and echoed much the same sentiment. Visiting the Town and assimilating with the people is really the best – and perhaps only – way to get a proper sense for the warmth and inherent vibrancy that permeates so noticeably.
“There is just something about the community that has this ‘wow’ factor,” says St. George.
Burton and his wife are prime examples of people who were hit by the ‘wow’ factor. They moved from Toronto 21 years ago at the urging of friends. Although originally quite skeptical, on their very first visit they both quickly fell in love with the Town due to the quaint charm and friendliness of the people.
There are a number of communities working hard to compete and emulate what Oakville has achieved. It’s an incredibly powerful combination when a municipality can tout its extraordinary livability standards while also building core strength in the advancement of commerce.
Pioneers in Green Space
A few years ago Environmental Defence Canada labelled Oakville Mayor Rob Burton as ‘the Greenest Mayor in Canada’. It’s a label he takes very seriously.
“As a result of that, I can’t let up for a minute or I’ll lose the compliment,” he says. “We do focus on that thoroughly. Everything we’ve built has been LEED Silver or better.”
About 800,000 square feet of community facilities adhering to green standards have been built in the past eight years with lots more to come. In fact, Oakville has green building standards for new subdivisions and one of the country’s most aggressive tree planting criteria campaigns – no more lollipop trees. The mandate is to plant substantial trees in 30 cubic metres of excellent, quality soil. As it now stands, the Town is almost at 30% tree canopy with the goal of reaching 40% by the year 2057 – Oakville’s 200th anniversary.
“We are a pioneer in preserving environmental land and green space. In 2007 and 2008 we created the country’s first municipal green belt called the Oakville Natural Heritage System. It’s about one-third of the northern area of the Town,” says Mayor Burton.
Oakville is one of four municipalities making up the Regional Municipality of Halton along with Burlington, Milton and Halton Hills. The Region followed the Oakville system of greenspace with a Halton Enhanced National Greenspace that covers fully 51% the geographic landmass.
“As a result of that leadership we were thrilled to see in Ontario’s new provincial policy statement for planning a new item calling on all municipalities to create natural heritage systems,” states Mayor Burton.
Looking to the Future
It is anticipated the proposed Life Sciences and Technology Business Park will create 12,000 jobs with 1.5 million square feet of development. Located adjacent to the new hospital complex, it will most definitely put Oakville on the global map as a premier innovation district.
“This bold new development plan is changing the way we look at the future of our employment areas,” adds St. George. “Older employment districts are often isolated office parks, accessible only by car. These innovation districts speak to the demands of the new workforce generation and promote a compact, sustainable urban environment that incorporates quality of life in a nurturing 24/7 live-work community. Another core advantage is this new synergy provides an integral connectivity with stakeholders within industry and institutions, such as Sheridan College.
“You might associate Sheridan with its strengths on the entertainment side of animation but there are all sorts of strengths beyond that such as 3D printing, medical simulation and imaging that provide a convergence with our life sciences sector,” mentions St. George.
In the area of sports and recreation, Oakville is already widely known for its excellent youth programs and can boast of having the largest youth soccer club in North America with 14,000 members. There is also a professionally-designed, state-of-the-art indoor, full-sized international FIFA soccer field, which is a marvelous LEED Gold building.
Arts and culture have always played a sizable role in the town’s identity, and as such The Oakville Centre for the Performing Arts has had a tremendous impact on the local economy during its 38 years in operation. Equipped with a 470-seat auditorium and a 120-seat intimate studio theatre, about 250 performances are held throughout the year by local, national and international artists. It was considered state-of-the-art for its time; however, the facility is now admittedly in the twilight stages of its life.
“It was certainly an efficient investment in culture and it has served the community well. But at its age and the size of our community we recognize the need to create something bigger and better,” says Mayor Burton. “We’ve just completed two years of intensive public consultation and design work in terms of where to take it in the future.”
As part of a forward-minded agenda, there are three main economic development areas that Oakville is aggressively investing in for the future. They are: the Winston Park West lands; the Life Sciences and Technology Park next to the hospital; and the Midtown urban growth centre.
“Other than Union Station in downtown Toronto, the Oakville GO Station is still the busiest of all stations,” says Mayor Burton. “It’s a transit-oriented development hub.”
Midtown, with the GO Station, has been identified as a priority growth area. In the next five years what Mayor Burton, St. George and the rest of the economic development team want to see is movement to a shovel-ready position for a number of projects as there have been countless companies that have stepped forward expressing a keen desire to set up their businesses in Oakville. Having a competitive commercial tax rate provides yet another robust selling point in attracting commerce.
“We are always aiming for a bright shiny star being Canada’s most livable town. You don’t get there by being satisfied with where you are. You have to be continuously striving to improve,” concludes Mayor Burton