Prepare To Be Amazed
January 2015 – The picturesque city of Oshawa, Ontario is located on the north shore of Lake Ontario about 60km east of Toronto and is the largest city in the Regional Municipality of Durham. It has an amazing documented history dating back to the first known settlement by the Iroquois in the year 1400.
The city has a population of 157,000 with a Census Metro Area population of about 358,000. Noticeable is the rich, cultural background, including a number of wonderful historic buildings, including several well-known museums. The Canadian Business Journal spoke with Oshawa Mayor John Henry and Cindy Symons-Milroy, Director, Economic Development about a variety of topics ranging from the city’s prominent history to its ongoing comprehensive business initiatives that have already yielded a number of impressive results.
For decades Oshawa has been known as The Automotive Capital of Canada primarily due to the enormous economic impact General Motors of Canada and numerous off-shoot companies in the sector who have supplied GM with various components and services. It has been, and continues to be, an integral part of the community. While there are no longer 20,000 jobs at GM, it is still a remarkably large individual employer that continues to make significant technological advancements and capital investments at its Oshawa locations.
“The manufacturing of vehicles is key and we still have close to 4,000 people working directly in General Motors in the manufacturing of the greatest cars, I think, in all of Canada and North America,” Henry proudly says. “It’s more than just about the great cars that we make. It’s about the employees, the retirees and all the parts suppliers that are in and around all of southern Ontario.”
The 2008 global economic downturn took a big bite out of many industries and recovery for some has been a long time coming. Having all levels of government working closely with employers has always been essential, but even more so following that prolonged recession. Henry is certainly well qualified to discuss the integral relationship between government and employers as he serves as a member of the Automotive Mayors Caucus whereby all of the mayors have joined together as a group, uniting as one voice in talking about auto manufacturing in the province. Not just in Oshawa, but in places such as St. Catharines, Oakville, Windsor, Barrie and Collingwood.
“We get together and through that organization we have a direct relationship with the Premier, who knows how important car manufacturing is for this province,” Henry notes. “We have an excellent relationship with General Motors and Unifor Local 222 (formerly CAW) and have conversations on a quarterly basis with both.”
As crucially important as the automotive sector has always been for Oshawa’s fiscal health, the key factor to ensuring stability and long-term success for any municipality is established through the diversification and growth of various industries. Many towns and cities have been victimized by a lack of alternative employment options and are paying the economic price for it. That is something the leaders in Oshawa have been cognizant of for a long time and won’t let that same problem afflict their community.
“Automotive has been a big part of Oshawa’s history and we certainly see it being a big part of our future, but we’ve diversified our economy a great deal in the last number of years,” Symons-Milroy tells us. “We have more people working in education, healthcare and energy than in automotive, so although we’ve got this strong history with the production of vehicles in our city, we’ve moved towards a diversified economy with jobs in some very key sectors.”
A fundamental reason for the success in diversifying the employment base in Oshawa can be directly attributed to the innovative advancement of the city’s three universities and one college: the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, which is a high-tech school in the north end of the city; Durham College; The LHEARN Centre, as part of Queen’s University, situated in the middle of the hospital; Trent University with a standalone campus; along with a partnership with the University of Windsor in bringing some of their critically acclaimed programs to Oshawa as well. In addition to that are private colleges that each have a number of top-level programs for students looking to receive a quality education. Both Henry and Symons-Milroy agree that the universities and colleges are integral to the future success of the city during this transitional time for a number of industries, with each school bringing their own distinct educational contributions.
The mandate for each of the schools of higher learning is to work with industry to help them in their efforts to grow and solve challenges, and because of that the city is fundamentally transforming its local economy with excellent results. The schools provide some of the best educational programs in a number of key areas, including healthcare, engineering, executive management and information technology.
The city is also home to Lakeridge Health Oshawa, formerly Oshawa General Hospital. The 437-bed facility serves as a regional hospital and also houses the R.S. McLaughlin Durham Regional Cancer Centre. It should also be noted that the cancer centre is ranked No.1 in the province.
Attracting New Business
Symons-Milroy and her economic development team are constantly devising new business plans to entice companies to want to set up their businesses in Oshawa.
“We’ve got manufacturing buildings under construction right now and we constantly get inquiries for new Greenfield development because of our competitive land prices,” she tells us. “We have our cluster development strategy which we actively work on in our five key sectors and we are doing an active lead generation program to try and attract more investment.”
The five key sectors mentioned by Symons-Milroy are: advanced manufacturing, health and biosciences, energy generation, multimodal transportation and logistics, and information technology.
“We also just launched Plan 2020, which is a new plan for downtown Oshawa, which includes enhancements to attract investment,” Symons-Milroy continues. “Those two plans combined are very exciting for us and I think we’ll see a lot of interesting investment over the next few years.”
Investment opportunities can come in all forms, and most often that is how it unfolds. 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.
“The Region has a very active program in China and we participate in that. In 2015 they will be putting on a program in Germany, which we will participate in as well,” Symons-Milroy states. “We partner with the Region on various investment attraction initiatives not just the picture of Oshawa but of the entire Durham region because any investment here is good for all of us.”
With extensive redevelopment within Oshawa, new hotels have sprouted up on the horizon and that has enabled the city to attract a number of larger entertainment and sporting events. Each weekend the arenas are bustling with activity.
Keeping the strong momentum towards continued economic development generation is essential. Both Mayor Henry and Symons-Milroy believe they already have the basis for an excellent foundation for which to build and develop further expansion five to 10 years down the road.
“I think the key for us is capitalizing on our universities and college and the work that is coming out of them,” Henry notes. “We have land that is adjacent to both our college and university and is part of their planned future growth.”
There are currently almost 20,000 full-time students going to school in the city. Development of some city-owned lands with new companies coming into the city to do business is expected to create an economic spinoff that will hopefully see as many as 40,000 young people in the community in the not too distant future. From that spinoff brings in other spinoffs.
“I really believe with the right energy Oshawa could be the next Waterloo of Canada,” Henry confidently states.
Just a few short years ago, you could have parked downtown, any time, any place without any problem in finding somewhere to park your vehicle. Henry says he’s proud to say that Oshawa once again has parking problems in the downtown core, thanks to the tremendous revitalization. During the day it’s full of patrons doing shopping and thousands of students who patronize the many restaurants and stores. At night there are numerous entertainment options, including hockey, and most notably the OHL’s Oshawa Generals. The downtown core has once again come alive. Each year an estimated 15,000 take in the annual Santa Claus parade.
“It’s got a strong heartbeat,” Henry enthuses. “We’re doing well, but we want to continue to improve. We’re introducing small festivals. Our BIA is doing great work. It’s functioning incredibly well and has a great direction.”
The airport, as of early next year, every major small aircraft provider will have a sales office located at the Oshawa Airport. With the closing of Buttonville, it’s brought about more business opportunities. The regional airport has customs clearance so, as example, international parts can be brought in from the United States. It’s also used by Air Nunavut as a base for Medevac flights. There is no scheduled air service out of the airport, which is used primarily for corporate regional purposes. There has been 300,000 sq-ft of new hangars built in the past three years. The convenience is immeasurable. Corporate business people can be in and out of an airport in a matter of minutes, rather than hours if they had to travel to Toronto.
Oshawa is blessed with having a deep-water port which now has the capability of running rail into the port. A number of commodities are moved in and out of the port including the likes of steel products and fertilizer. Steel is primarily coming into port. The rail into the port is brand new and is about 3km long.
“We ship agricultural grains from the northern part of Durham on barges down the St. Lawrence,” Henry mentions. “The Oshawa Airport – which is double the size of Buttonville and is five times the size of Billy Bishop (Toronto Island) – plays a key role in the movement of goods and services in and out of the city. We also have both major rail lines – CN and CP. Between roads, rail, air and water we can build, manufacture and ship anything, anywhere in the world.”
The proximity to Toronto provides inherent geographical benefits from an economic point of view with the country’s largest business and consumer market so near. It’s also just a matter of hours to reach other large cities or even the United States by car. As the old saying goes, location, location, location – and Oshawa has it.
“I think the best example I can give you is Del Monte recently converted an automotive building into their newest food-processing plant in North America,” Henry states. “They can serve the Ontario and Quebec border better from Oshawa than they could from the other side of Toronto. The advantage of not having that congestion going east everyday is a big bonus for us.”
Companies that select to transplant their business to Oshawa are gaining hours back and of course Highway 407 will travel through the city of Oshawa and open on the east side of the city in December 2015.
“The team here at the city – staff and council – realized this a few years ago and that’s why we took such a public approach to reminding the Province of Ontario on the importance of completing Highway 407 to Highway 115,” Henry says.
A more recent plan was to stop the 407 in the middle of Oshawa and not honour the original agreement of going all the way through the city.
But Henry, city council and staff got the province to rethink their plan with success and so by 2020 the highway will in fact extend all the way to Highway 115. The project also includes two north-south connections to Highway 401. The first section of the extension will stretch 22 km from Brock Rd. in Pickering through to Harmony Rd. in Oshawa and will be completed by late 2015. By 2017, the highway will be opened from Harmony Rd. in Oshawa to Taunton Rd. at the East Durham Link in Clarington. By 2020, the entire project will be complete, with Hwy 407 extended all the way to Hwy 35/115.
“The other key part for us is Metrolinx, realizing that there is an opportunity with vast potential out here has recently purchased some brownfield lands once owned by Knob Hill Farms,” Henry adds. “Metrolinx is talking about bringing a rail line and Go station into the centre of the city.”
The plan is also to have another Go station on the west side and continuing eventually all the way to Clarington on the east end of Durham.
The city now has a rapid bus service called the Pulse where every seven and a half minutes a bus travels through the region all the way from Mary St. in Oshawa to the Scarborough University of Toronto campus. Understanding that being caught in traffic is not a good thing for productivity, the city and the region have been very proactive in dealing with that. Highway 401 on the other hand is a bit of a challenge, and the province knows that; the loss to the economy is huge.
Another bonus to setting up a business and living in Oshawa is the close proximity to Toronto but at far more affordable levels. The municipality has more than 2,600 acres of passive and active parkland with more than 27km of paved trails that provides citizens and visitors with a way to discover some of the beautiful nature either on foot or bicycle. There are also numerous recreational facilities throughout the city that are well used by the people who live in Oshawa.
“From a residential component, you can buy a standard 1,100-sq-ft bungalow built in the late 1950s or early 1960s similar to a home that would have been built in the Willowdale (North York) part of Toronto for about one-third the price,” Henry offers.
Having an affordable community is extremely important for young people just starting out in their careers. A commute from the northern part of Toronto takes at least 40 minutes to get downtown, which is the same time it takes to commute from Oshawa to downtown Toronto. It’s a lifestyle that you could never have from an affordability point of view if living in the big city. The affordability factor also comes into play for enterprise as well.
“From an industrial perspective our industrial land pricing for service industrial land here average about $250,000 an acre,” says Simons-Milroy. “On the other side of Toronto, or even in Toronto, you are looking at $1 million-plus per acre for serviced industrial land. From a cost perspective for greenfield development, we are extremely competitive and we have no industrial development charges, which is another big advantage.”
There is effective coordination between the municipalities that results in the greater good for the Regional Municipality of Durham. It’s a bonding that often does not develop in many other regional municipalities. Environics and The Conference Board of Canada are just two of the more prominent organizations who have often touted the successes in Durham Region.
“Our economic development departments work well together,” Henry states. “The mayors realize that in order to make a pie everybody has to put something into it. It’s not important that every new business moves to Oshawa. What’s really important is some of those folks might live or shop here and I think that thought process has travelled through the region. We work more cooperatively than ever before. We don’t bump heads. It’s about opportunities for the entire region.”
With a regional population base of about 610,000 and numerous businesses throughout, it makes Durham a very appealing location for potential new businesses to set up shop while also building upon business alliances with companies in other regions or countries.
The Durham Region economic development partnership has all of the lakeshore communities jointly funding it and the region matches those dollars. When initiatives are planned, it is done so cooperatively with all the municipalities involved.
“If we do a trade show and a lead generation program we all represent the region as a whole and are presenting a unified voice which benefits us all,” adds Symons-Milroy. “We’re paying a lot of attention to entrepreneurship development as well. We have one of 13 regional innovation centres called the Spark Centre. The role of the Spark Centre is to provide counselling and assistance as well as mentoring support to innovative technological startup companies.
The city will be investing $150,000 over the next five years into Spark to help create a new incubator centre that will help to grow and foster those technology companies not unlike what Kitchener-Waterloo is doing with Communitech. Henry and Symons-Milroy view that entire entrepreneurial side as a very large growth pattern for future projects.
Strong leadership is what separates the thriving communities from those that just sputter along. In Oshawa’s case there are experienced political leaders who also have accomplished business backgrounds in the private sector, leading to an inherent understanding of how to get from Point A to Point B.
There are two main economic development programs set up by the city to ensure all is running smoothly.
“One is our Business Connects program which we use to meet with our local companies on a regular basis to find out what is going on in their world and the issues they are dealing with,” Symons-Milroy notes. “Are there any provincial or other regulations impacting their growth. Eighty per cent of all job creation comes from within the same business base so it’s important for us to have that pulse on what is happening within our local business community.”
“We’ve also just introduced the Ambassador program, which is another tool we are using to work with our local companies so they can go out and be our ambassadors,” Symons-Milroy continues. “When they are out dealing with their customers and suppliers anywhere in the world they can promote Oshawa as a great place to do business.”
Unemployment in the city is right around the national average. About 20,000 automotive jobs were lost in a short period of time, but through its resiliency and diversification of business opportunities, the future looks bright. One sure way to gauge a city’s pulse is the amount of construction activity that is happening.
“At the end of October we were sitting at $454 million in building permits,” notes Symons-Milroy. “That was $80 million over last year and $8 million over our highest year ever on record.”
The Oshawa Centre, which is the largest regional mall east of Toronto, is undergoing a 260,000-sq-ft expansion. There has also been incredible growth in the student accommodation sector with more than 800 beds built in just the past year. There are five construction cranes in the city at the moment.
“We have a militia unit in Oshawa – the Ontario regiment is located here,” Henry remarks. “The unit goes back to before Confederation and their regimental association has a museum in Oshawa with one of the largest collection of antique working World War Two vehicles in North America.”
The museum is open to the public and during the summer months they hold Tank Saturdays where the special vehicles are put out on display for the public to enjoy. There is also a beautiful community museum on the waterfront and there is Parkwood, and The Peony Garden within the Oshawa Botanical Gardens. Among the artistic architectural designs are the Rotary Bridge and The Garden Club Gazebo.
“Each year in June we have the Peony Festival and it kicks off on the same weekend as Father’s Day, which this next coming year will be the 41st anniversary year of our Fiesta Week where we celebrate all the cultures of our community through food and drink set up in pavilions along with dances and a big parade,” Henry says. “Fiesta Week is our largest festival.”
Oshawa just recently finished hosting the university men’s lacrosse championships and the women’s world field lacrosse in 2013. In 2015 the Special Olympics and Pan-Am Games will be coming to the city, with boxing and weightlifting competitions taking place at General Motors Centre, which is also home to the OHL’s Oshawa Generals. A number of well known entertainment acts are booked at the Centre throughout the course of the year.
“This year we’ve had performing acts such as Florida-Georgia Line to Elton John to Dierks Bentley,” Henry says. “The busiest month for downtown was February when we had 15 major events bringing between 3,000 and 7,000 people each time to the area.”
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. Oshawa is also home to Canada’s Automotive Museum, which is the only one of its kind. It’s well worth a visit to Oshawa. If you can make it – prepare to be amazed.