Ontario’s feel good town
Business View Magazine interviews Gil Brocanier, Mayor of Cobourg, Ontario, for our focus on economic development and sustainability in Canadian cities.
Hugging the northern shore of Lake Ontario, the Town of Cobourg exudes the feel good vibes of a charming little community, while sitting only an hour’s drive from the bustling cities of Toronto to the west and Kingston to the east. A prime location on the Highway 401 corridor and the VIA Rail passenger line makes this innovative community appealing to businesses, as well as a haven for its growing population of 18,500 to put down roots.
Mayor Gil Brocanier just finished seven years as Mayor of Cobourg, and four years as Deputy Mayor prior to that. “The Deputy Mayor in Cobourg is responsible for the budget,” Brocanier reflects, “ so, my whole career in office has been focused on economic development. It’s something I have a passion for and is very much needed. We’ve worked very hard over the years to attract new business and support existing businesses, and we’ve done that in many ways. Our business retention program is key because every job you create through a new business, you can create nine by working with existing businesses.”
Two of the strongest industries are the food sector and plastics sector. Cobourg promotes its success with those types of companies and is working on developing clusters, so that other manufacturers and supporting businesses will see it as an attractive place to do business. A good example is a plant that moved here and produces packaging materials for food companies – boxes, liners, sealed packages – and complements the food manufacturers in town, including Wheatabix, Maplehurst Bakeries (formerly Weston’s) and Canada Candy Company (confectionery goods).
The town owns an industrial mall with one million square feet of manufacturing space and many tenants. Brocanier explains, “One way we help them grow their business is when they have to make a capital expenditure. Because we own the Northam Industrial Park, we take money and invest in capital for them, so they can expand. They pay us back by signing a long-term lease to make sure we get our investment back. That helps them greatly because we’re willing to upfront the money, and we use the revenue from our industrial park to fund that. We aren’t going to the tax base.”
The program results in rising employment and increasing the value of the asset. There is also a fully serviced industrial park in the east end of Cobourg. The town owns the land and sells parcels to people wanting to develop their own building and business. In addition, several other privately-owned areas of industrial-suited real estate have brought in businesses that contribute to the manufacturing economy. The Northumberland Hills Hospital is Cobourg’s largest employer with a staff of more than 400. In the manufacturing sector, Horizons Plastics has the major workforce.
Given Cobourg’s idyllic waterfront location, and convenient highway and rail access, it’s no surprise that tourism is a huge economic driver. “We’ve become known as a destination town,” boasts the Mayor. “If you come into Cobourg in the summer, you’ll find something going on almost every weekend. We’re drawing a lot of people from outside our area – Toronto, Kingston, anywhere within a 120 km radius. Sometimes visitors just come to enjoy a day at the water. We have one of the most beautiful beaches on all of Lake Ontario. They also come to take part in the activities – our award-winning Sand Castle Festival with professional sand sculptors; the annual 3-day Waterfront Festival; the Highland Games; Ribfest weekend are all favorites and bring a large number of people to town.”
Cobourg is a great community for active living, with an abundance of walking trails, cycling paths, and arts and cultural events. The Art Gallery of Northumberland is located in the downtown core, as is historic Victoria Hall where live theatrical performances are always crowd pleasers. Residents enjoy a rich, healthy quality of life, and when they feel like an urban experience, the big city lights are only an hour away.
In 2011, Cobourg opened a massive $27 million community center, complete with two full-sized ice surfaces, a pair of full-sized gymnasium courts, and a vibrant seniors organization with over 900 seniors involved in activity programs. One of the arenas has a walking track around the circumference of the ice surface and seating area. A popular place for walking in inclement weather, it’s not unusual to see 50 to 60 people exercising there on a cold or rainy day.
Residential development in town is booming, with four active housing developments on the go – one in the north end, one in the east, and two in the west. Construction offerings include single-family, detached homes and townhomes. One developer has a particular townhouse variety much appreciated by seniors looking for low-maintenance living. On the economic development front, Brocanier notes, “We own our utilities. We’re the electrical supplier for the town, so we’re very much in control. If you look at the 60-plus electrical distributors in Ontario, we’re the fourth lowest in the cost of electricity.”
And there’s big news in the technology sector. On May 17, 2018, the Town of Cobourg and the Northumberland Community Futures Development Corporation (CFDC) officially opened the doors of the new Venture 13 Innovation Centre – a regionally unique facility that focuses on the advancement of technology entrepreneurship, making, and learning, while connecting entrepreneurs, start-ups, and high-growth SMEs with industry, academia, investors, and the region’s economic development professionals.
The 30,000 square foot, state-of-the-art Venture13 complex in Northam Industrial Park has secured permanent anchor tenants with the Cobourg Police Services Business Department on the second floor, and first-floor tenants, including the Northumberland Community Futures Development Corporation (CFDC), the Town of Cobourg Economic Development Department, and the Northumberland Manufacturers Association (NMA). Consolidating resources and infrastructure within a single accessible and collaborative space, the Centre will create more than 70 jobs in the community.
Mayor Brocanier reports, “I’m so excited about this! There was a building in the industrial park we own that was used as a call center. When that moved out of town, we had this empty two-story building costing us about $70,000 per year just to keep it going. After looking at the options, we partnered with our local CFDC, the Northumberland Manufacturers Association, and Northumberland Makers to create a regional technology center – a soft landing spot for entrepreneur and start-up businesses. There are private offices available, and open collaborative and drop-in space in the Maker Lab, where people can actually create a prototype of their idea. With all of this, and an ADC common lecture room, we developed an important relationship with Sir Sanford Fleming College. They recently made a $100,000 commitment to the facility. We’ve also met with the University of Ontario Institute of Technology and Durham College about partnership opportunities and how they can help us with what we call ‘jobs of the future’, as we try to attract the next generation of companies. Venture 13 is all about technology and entrepreneurship. That’s the future.”
Cobourg’s claim to one of the nicest waterfronts on Lake Ontario, replete with marina, campground, and beautiful sandy beach, has a number of user groups vying for space. Because it is a finite area with so many demands on it, the town is in need of a waterfront master plan. So, they hired a consultant to determine what the uses should be. “Because we only have one opportunity to get this right,” says the Mayor, “and we want to accommodate as many of the needs as possible. They had four public meetings, two hands-on workshops, and conducted a survey – of which we had 2,000 respondents. For a town of 18,500, that’s unheard of! Now they’re putting together the information they gleaned and will give us a list of priorities that people are asking for along the waterfront.”
The town’s expanded Planning and Sustainability Advisory Committee offers input from a sustainability point of view on everything from industrial and residential development to designated greenspace. That includes James Cockburn Park in the heart of town – a conservation district under the auspices of the Ganaraska Region Conservation Authority – and Victoria Park on the waterfront. Cobourg also has an arborist on staff who’s working on an urban forest plan. Every effort is being made to make natural areas available to the public, but also clean and green.
“Most importantly,” says Brocanier, “is we’re a very progressive community. We’re looking to the future and trying to attract young people with families to come to Cobourg for the quality of life we have to offer because they are the ones that stimulate the economy and keep a community vibrant. People stop me on the street every day – some have been here six months, others 40 years – and they all tell me the same thing, that life is wonderful here.”
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AT A GLANCE
WHO: Cobourg, Ontario
WHAT: A Lake Ontario waterfront town, population 18,500
WHERE: Midway between Toronto and Kingston, Ontario