Where people and businesses thrive
Business View Magazine interviews Mayor Brian Saunderson and CAO Fareed Amin of Collingwood, Ontario for our focus on Economic Development in Canadian Cities.
It may be just a short 90 minute drive north of Toronto, Ontario, but the municipality of Collingwood, Ontario is a world away from the big city hustle and grind – a literal breath of fresh air harboring a recreational mecca on the shores of beautiful Nottawasaga Bay. Its stunning landscapes inspire artists of all disciplines, while nearby Blue Mountain Ski Resort draws winter enthusiasts from far and wide. Collingwood has earned kudos as one of the top places in Ontario to open and operate a small business – evolving from its rich shipbuilding history to welcome entrepreneurs and innovators in today’s thriving technology sector.
Collingwood’s Mayor, Brian Sanderson, and CAO, Fareed Amin, are full of passion and praise for the exceptional community they serve. Business View Magazine recently queried them on Collingwood’s remarkable economic progress and how the city will handle the population spike that’s predicted for the not too distant future. The following is an edited transcript of that conversation.
BVM: How would you describe Collingwood from a business perspective?
Saunderson: “In 2018, we were voted one of the top Communities for Entrepreneurship in Canada (#6) and #2 for Entrepreneurial Spirit. That speaks to the evolution of our community since the shipyards closed down in 1986. We were very much a waterfront community and when the shipyards closed, we had to recreate ourselves. So, if you wanted a job here, you were probably going to be creating it for yourself. I think that was a legacy of that shift in our economy that continues today. We were also named by Maclean’s Magazine as the 22nd Best Community to Live in Canada, reflecting the strength of our local economy, as well as our natural amenities. Maclean’s noted that two-thirds of our residents live and work in Collingwood.”
“The majority of our employers are entrepreneurially-driven. We have quite a high-tech, knowledge-based sector that’s grown up in our community – with companies like Switch Video, that does animated explainer videos for corporations around the world. Smash Reality, WordJack Media, adbank, Content Refined, ARO Technologies and Canopy Media are other great examples of digital economy companies here in Collingwood. But we also have an interesting mix of boutique mid-sized companies like award-winning Agnora Glass that does structural architectural glass for businesses, internationally, and Sensor Technology, which grew out of Blue Mountain Pottery. One of the engineers purchased the company and turned the ceramics into sensors for marine uses, such as sub-bottom profiling, seismic exploration, and hydrographic surveying. They are known around the world for their technology with military and naval uses. “
“MacLean Engineering has been in Collingwood over 25 years, and they are making large waves in the mining sector with battery-driven, electric mining equipment. Developed together with MEDATECH, a local systems engineering firm, these new underground vehicles are having incredible impact in the mining sector for noise control, temperature control, and exhaust ventilation of the mine shafts because these are such big concerns when working underground. So, we have a strong economy and a great sense of place between the Niagara Escarpment and Georgian Bay. The awards are recognition of that and, while they’re nice to have, that’s not the end result we’re concerned about. We’re more focused on having a vibrant, full-circle economy that can employ our residents and provide jobs for supporting businesses, like the restaurants and other sectors.”
BVM: What are the driving forces behind the city’s growth?
Saunderson: “Our population is slated to grow by 50 percent over the next 12 years to about 33,000 in 2031. I would say we are now sitting at over 22,000 plus, full-time, and close to 30,000 when we include our weekend residents in town. Tourism is a big part of our diverse industry base. You have to understand, we’re sandwiched between the Town of Blue Mountains, that has all the ski resorts, and the Town of Wasaga Beach, which has the largest freshwater beach in the world. So, when people say, ‘I went skiing in Collingwood on the weekend,’ they were really skiing in the Town of Blue Mountains and visiting Collingwood. Tourism drives our local hotels, our exceptional restaurants, and our great coffee shops. And we have a growing Collingwood Creative Community with theaters, artists’ studios, and art galleries – it’s very much a cultural hub.
“We are growing in many respects with a particular focus on increasing our investment-readiness and creating jobs, understanding that we need to grow in a way that is sustainable and increases our circular economy.
“Water has been an integral part of our history as a shipbuilding community, but now we are seeing a different focus related to water. We have a number of consulting firms, Tatham Engineering, C.F. Crozier and Associates, and Greenland Engineering, which have a specialization in water resources engineering and geo-mapping storm water effects on communities. We have companies developing specialty water products such as Isowater, Canada’s leading distributor of deuterium oxide or heavy water.
“These companies and others are coming together to form a tech cluster we are calling ‘Tech Hub North,’ and we are exploring the creation of a business accelerator to help other tech companies grow and thrive in Collingwood. A prime example of this concept is the internet-connected SafeSump, a creation of a local teenager. This Smart technology sump pump is part of the Collingwood Pilot Project, which is developing and promoting technology to help homeowners reduce the risk of flooding in their homes and provide metadata that the municipality can use for asset management and infrastructure planning.”
BVM: How are you planning for future growth?
Amin: “We’re building on our strengths and trying to better define what Collingwood stands for. And we’re about to launch an Economic Development Action Plan to promote that across Ontario and Canada. Lots of young entrepreneurs are coming to Collingwood to grow their business. We’re looking at ways of supporting that growing technology cluster through angel investors and opportunities in that regard – how we might be able to create a value chain around companies like Agnora and MacLean Engineering.
“We have a bit of everything, but our intention, now, is to be more focused and investment-ready. And getting the word out; people who aren’t acquainted with Collingwood don’t know what kind of community we have and what we offer. We want to inspire our young people to stay in Collingwood or return after post-secondary education. The other motivation is for us to continue to deliver service through a diverse economy with a balance of industrial, commercial, and residential. Of course, the Collingwood General and Marine Hospital is a huge part of our community. It’s been here over 115 years and is our biggest employer – over 400 people – and is very much a part of our social fabric. The healthy lifestyle is a great attribute of Collingwood and we encourage our broader public sector partners like the county and the hospital to help us promote that healthy living.
“We’re about to kick into high gear our Official Plan review, to take a fresh look at how we promote sustainable growth, not only relating to housing and commercial and industrial development, but how we build a complete community, factoring in environmental considerations and healthy lifestyle. One concern we have in Collingwood is affordability. We want to build in a more diverse housing type, in a systematic, evidence-based way, through the Official Plan review; not simply accepting everything that is presented to us. We’re going to have a much more deliberate, strategic, medium for a long-term view of the kind of development we allow.”
BVM: Is your downtown undergoing revisioning?
Saunderson: “We have a centralized, well-defined downtown core with a lot of historic buildings that have potential for upstairs apartments. In terms of densification and sustainability, as our community grows, we want to protect and enhance the quality of life by having a mixed housing inventory – apartments, townhomes, semi-detached, and detached. That diversity allows us to provide housing for different income levels and prevents urban sprawl that would push our boundaries.”
Amin: “A challenge for many communities is to preserve their downtown as a vibrant, active entity, and we have been very successful in that. We continue to invest in the core with shops and restaurants, heritage designation, infrastructure, and support for our downtown businesses. We have promoted development outside of our urban core, while at the same time encouraging businesses to locate downtown. We are a very walkable city and we’re expanding our municipal transportation system so that, moving forward, we can be more sustainable and curtail the reliance on cars, locally.”
BVM: What is ahead for the future of Collingwood?
Amin: “This community is thriving because we have the municipality, the not-for-profit, and the profit sectors working together, sharing this common vision of continuing to make Collingwood a liveable, engaged, entrepreneurial community. Finance is always an issue for municipalities. We have a very limited revenue base, which is mostly residential taxes. So, we make sure we spend every tax dollar we raise, wisely, and that it goes toward improving public service; and that we’re accountable and transparent about that spending. We have a big emphasis on asset management and maintaining our infrastructure. We’re also looking at a very ambitious waterfront development plan that would require a significant injection of capital. For that, we’ll need public and private sector partners.”
Saunderson: “Sustainability has become a very big issue, as people understand the nature of the growth pressures we’re under. With our Parks & Rec Master Plan, our Waterfront Master Plan, our Official Plan review, and our Economic Development input, we can create a sustainability model that allows us to have the economic depth, and the cultural depth, and the social depth, but retain the local, small town feel that people love and celebrate.”
*Top image courtesy of Dave West Photography