Business View Magazine interviews Mitch Panciuk, Mayor of Belleville Ontario, for our focus on Economic Development in Canadian Cities
The global pandemic has rocked many cities and ground local economies to a halt, causing problems for those municipalities who chose to put the majority of their focus on stopping the virus. Services for residents and businesses alike suffered, causing some to flee to greener pastures. One of those destinations of choice is Belleville, Ontario. The municipality has done everything it can over the course of almost two years to keep residents healthy, but it didn’t stop forging ahead and progressing with infrastructure projects and investment in services to improve the quality of life for residents. The city pivoted with the changing times, understanding that the current situation may be a new normal, to help residents make the most of the pandemic in a safe way, by investing in outdoor recreation.
Mayor Mitch Panciuk believes those efforts have made the city more attractive for new residents who are leaving larger cities for the natural amenities and quality of life that Belleville has always enjoyed. He reports, “Residents and businesses are seeing what I’ve known all along. As people’s thoughts are occupied by COVID-19 there is an underlying sense of confidence and excitement about our future. We’ve taken this opportunity to focus on what’s important, which is to provide the services our residents and businesses rely on, and to make the investments that we need to have a better and brighter future. While we are apprehensive about the public health emergency that the whole world is going through, we see that once we come out of this, our community and our economy will take off like a rocket ship and have continuous strong performance.”
The beautiful, historic city is located at the mouth of the Moira River on the Bay of Quinte near the eastern shore of Lake Ontario. The province’s largest highway, the 401, runs right through Belleville, giving residents easy access to larger cities like Kingston, which is about a half hour’s drive to the east, and Toronto about two hours to the west. Belleville Ontario’s population is just over 55,000 and Maclean’s Magazine ranked it the fourth best city in Canada to live in, due in part to high-quality internet service, access to medical care, and low property taxes.
Panciuk acknowledges, “The recognition is nice. We have a really bright future. People want to come to Belleville Ontario… when Maclean’s ranks us the fourth best place in the entire country in which to live, that really generates a lot of interest by people who maybe haven’t known this. We’ve known that for a long time, but now outsiders are starting to see it.”
The municipality isn’t wasting time when it comes to creating better infrastructure and amenities to improve the quality of life for current and future residents, as well as business owners. They have made a historic deal to relocate their fairgrounds outside of the city and are starting to make headway on the $35 million projects. The preparation and design work is complete and in 2022 they plan to start servicing the new property and selling parcels of light commercial and light industrial along the way.
Panciuk is pleased with the progress, noting, “The redevelopment of the existing site in the city center is moving along quite well; we’ve sold both parcels of the former Ben Bleeker Avenue property.” Those sales will result in commercial space with a new grocery store and some higher density housing. What will happen to the fairgrounds property on the east and west side of Sydney Street is still up for debate, but the city is going ahead with a brand new YMCA and outdoor recreational facility in 2022.
The municipality is also doubling down on infrastructure improvements with $44 million going toward new roads, resurfacing roads, and reconstructing roads. Panciuk says they are also investing $26 million into outdoor recreation, making the community a priority by updating and improving their parks, playgrounds and a new agricultural society building. The city is also expanding the Bay Shore trail system by about three kilometres, from Herchimer Ave. to Haig Rd. The extension will be named after former Mayor Shirley Langer in honour of her environmental approach to running the community in the early 1990s. They’ve also developed an outdoor cross-country skiing and snowshoeing trail, and throughout 2022 will invest in pickleball courts, outdoor tennis and basketball courts, as well as adding a BMX pump track to their skateboard park, along with beautifying Belleville’s outdoor spaces.
Panciuk explains, “That’s one of the by-products of COVID-19… we’ve really seen people enjoy an outdoor active lifestyle. So we are going to be continuing to build new recreation facilities. Again, these are all quality of life investments we’re making for our current residents but they really do continue to make our community very attractive for people who want to move here.” To that end, the city has introduced financial incentives for builders to create both high density and low density, new, and redeveloped rental housing to diversify affordability. As for connectivity, the urban areas of Belleville are well serviced with fibre internet, and Rogers Communications Inc. has announced a $140 investment to lay fibre infrastructure to the more rural parts of the city.
Businesses in Belleville Ontario have weathered the pandemic and many have thrived through innovative thinking and service delivery. The municipality worked closely with the Downtown Belleville Improvement Association to adapt quickly and create an online portal for residents to order curbside pick-up from downtown businesses. They also held outdoor events to bring people back downtown when COVID-19 cases were low.
“They really did a good job in marketing themselves,” says Panciuk. “We’ve had a number of new businesses that have opened since COVID-19 started and we’re really proud to see them; from retail to personal services, like salons. There’s an underlying sense of opportunity and confidence in the future. Belleville Ontario has had very good occupancy rates for hotel stays. People have wanted to get out of the bigger centers and come to a place which is safe, and our numbers have stayed low during those high occupancy levels. I think the key is that outsiders are seeing the attractiveness of Belleville Ontario and the opportunity. They are purchasing properties and starting businesses themselves, and making those improvements that we’re seeing. Now outsiders validate what we knew, which is that this is a great place to be and to do business.”
Businesses are indeed seeing the benefits, as the first IHOP outside of Niagara Falls is coming to Belleville Ontario, and the manufacturing industry is expanding with Proctor and Gamble making investments in a new line and a larger facility. Many more inquiries are also coming through.
Having a stable, well-staffed healthcare sector is becoming an ever-increasing demand, and Belleville has about 15 doctors per 100,000 people, which is more than many communities. The city invests tax dollars into its very successful doctor recruitment program for medical students. They also have a nurse practitioner-led clinic that they are planning to expand – pending financial assistance from the federal and provincial governments. The municipality is also looking to expand its offering of medical specialists.
“People get good service close to home,” says Panciuk, “so you know we’ll continue doing those types of things. We’re a big enough community that there’s lots of different offerings, but at the same time we have a small town feel where people care about each other.” Loyalist College also fuels the healthcare sector with a new full degree program educating and graduating up to 300 nurses a year. The college also supports the manufacturing sector with other technical programs.
The municipality is working toward the future on many fronts, including climate change, with programs like ‘Let it Grow’ to support pollinators by letting grass and wildflowers grow in certain sections of city parks, and increasing energy efficiency with combined heat and power projects at the Quinte Sports and Wellness Centre and the wastewater treatment. They are also hoping to announce in 2022 the electrification of the transit fleet. The city already has a few electric vehicles charging stations and the local power company plans to add more.
The pack isn’t worried about the future and sees smart growth and smart investments continuing. He states, “We’re focused on not just investing in the long term and what might come down the road, but also how we can make life better today for city residents. The amount of outside interest is an indication of how strong our future is going to be and we’re going to continue doing it with safe responsible growth.”
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AT A GLANCE
What: Beautiful historic city; population 55,000
Where: Eastern end of Lake Ontario on the Bay of Quinte
Strong Bros General Contracting Ltd – www.strongbros.ca
A Robust Business for A Prominent Community
The glasses clink together as the Strong Bros family toasts on the eve of their 30th Anniversary. And not just the immediate family members, the entire company is raising their glass to three decades of growth within their community and business. Charming and scenic Belleville Ontario is home to Strong Bros General Contracting, a second-generation family business. Embedded deeply into the local community, the leadership has opted to stay rooted in Belleville, despite their contracts extending them from urban centers from Toronto to Ottawa.
Strong Bros President, Justin Strong and Vice President, Natalie Strong understand that the success and longevity of their business is attested to the people that comprise it. “We take an employee-centric approach that believes deeply in investing back into the community that got us here. We’re making a sizeable investment in the city by constructing a contemporary three-storey state of the art head office right here in the City of Belleville. We bid on the public tenders for many of our infrastructure projects, that’s where our business relationships are forged, it made sense to grow alongside the municipality.”
The company headquarters is being designed to showcase the architectural abilities of the firm. An abundance of glass showcases the light-filled interior setting, with outstanding views and full lines of sight to the outdoor landscape. The new head office is strategically positioned just off Bell Blvd West near the new casino and Hwy 401, in an up and coming area of Belleville. By striving to treat their employees like family by investing into their career development and enhancing their quality of life, Strong Bros attracts top tier talent. As Justin notes, “I think it’s going to attract the types of project managers and staff that are impressed by our company’s corporate culture. It’s rare to achieve the scale our business has, while maintaining the intimacy and mom and pop shop attention to detail we foster on a daily basis.”
Founded in Belleville by Kevin and Sophia Strong in 1992, Strong Bros General Contracting Ltd. is a Canadian contracting company specializing in Commercial, Industrial, and Institutional sectors. From building design and construction, to challenging renovations, and specialized contracts, they work tirelessly to make expectations a reality. The firm has has earned industry-wide respect for orchestrating innovative, design-focused projects in critical environments, despite budgetary restrictions and stringent safety protocols.
The future is bright for Strong Bros, as they continue to thrive in the community they love.