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Business View North America interviews Dianne Therrien, Mayor of Peterborough, for our focus on Economic Development in Canadian Cities
Located on the picturesque Otonabee River, Peterborough is often referred to as the Gateway to the Kawarthas – the heart of Ontario cottage country. The community of 85,000 is surrounded with natural beauty, only an hour away from Toronto. Once known as “The Electric City”, Peterborough was the first Canadian town to use electric streetlights. Today, the city is known for its arts and music scene, and historical sites such as the Peterborough Lift Lock, the world’s highest hydraulic lift lock, which has been in operation since 1904.
Along with cities around the globe, Peterborough has spent the last year and a half navigating COVID-19; adjusting and adapting to a constantly changing set of public health and provincial regulations. As Ontario found itself in and out of lockdown, the city has been working to support the community and local businesses as much as possible. Mayor Diane Therrien shares, “It’s been a rollercoaster, but things are looking pretty good now, in terms of case counts locally and vaccination rates. We’re entering that reopening phase and people are really excited about getting back out and supporting local businesses.”
As the community pulled together, the Downtown Business Improvement Association (DBIA) worked with local restaurants, helping to create access to patio spaces when indoor dining was not allowed, which was crucial in helping those businesses survive. “Our local arts and culture community has been working hard on figuring out how to reinvigorate that sector when they are able to reopen,” says Therrien. “Local theaters and galleries have been shuttered for over a year and they’ve been trying to figure out how to do music shows and art shows in a safe way while complying with provincial guidelines. Peterborough, pre-COVID, had a very dynamic music scene. That’s something we’re all looking forward to once we’re able to get back out and dance.”
On the infrastructure side, things have continued to move forward in the city, with only minor delays due to COVID. Many multi-year projects were already in the budget, and there has been action on all ongoing plans throughout the pandemic. Therrien reports, “We are in the full swing of construction season, so there’s a lot happening with regards to road resurfacing, stormwater management, infrastructure, Public Works, taking care of parks, that kind of thing.” Extensive road work projects mean you won’t be able to drive far in the city without finding a Coco Paving truck. The award-winning company has been in business since 1964 and is one of the largest construction companies in Canada. With an asphalt plant located within the city, Coco Paving has done a lot of work for Peterborough and the county and have been supporters of various community initiatives.
As more retirees and families move to the area in search of a quieter pace and more affordable homes, there is a demand for housing; a need which the city has been aware of since 2018. The popularity and necessity of remote work has added to this growth. Fortunately, there is development underway throughout Peterborough with housing developments in various phases of construction and planning. “There are developments both in the single-family dwellings and multi residential units, which are really a need in Peterborough,” says Mayor Therrien. “There is a lot happening, which is really exciting. We are working closely with the private sector, as well as with provincial and federal levels of government for different funding opportunities for COVID recovery, infrastructure projects, etc.”
For the past five years the city has been working on revisions of their official planning document, finalizing plans to guide the growth of the community over the next few decades. A necessary step for the area. As Therrien explains, “The City of Peterborough is at its built boundary, so an issue that we are trying to deal with is either boundary adjustments, or cross-border servicing, for additional employment lands in the surrounding areas. Our official plan is designed to guide all that, and that’s something that all municipalities in Ontario are mandated to have by the provincial government. We are also subject to the Places to Grow Act and other pieces of provincial legislation that are helping us to guide our growth targets and what our development looks like going forward.”
With industrial parks throughout the city mostly at capacity, Peterborough is working with Trent University to develop Cleantech Commons – a Research and Innovation Park focused on clean, green and low-/ zero-carbon technology; agro-biotechnology; water technology; and biomaterials, with the goal of attracting companies with these priorities. This innovative project shows the 21st century thinking within the city, and its commitment to sustainability. Home to both Trent University and Fleming College, the city also has other green initiatives such as EV stations throughout the community, and the Lily Lake Solar Farm, which is operated by the Peterborough Utilities Group.
The public sector makes up much of the workforce in Peterborough. Major employers include The Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, Trent University, Fleming College, and the Peterborough Regional Health Centre. Therrien shares how entrepreneurship is also becoming a major sector within the community: “We are seeing a lot of young female entrepreneurs in the downtown and through home-based online businesses. We have a very creative community; a lot of really engaged, younger people that are just starting out… following their dreams and doing what they love, in a community that they love. There’s a whole stretch in our downtown where businesses have opened in the last few years, and they are all run by younger women, which is a really interesting dynamic.”
Peterborough & the Kawarthas Economic Development and the Peterborough Workforce Development Board both work with local industry and post-secondary institutions to help secure a skilled workforce for the city. In addition to Trent University and Fleming College, Seneca College also trains students at the Peterborough Airport to offer job skills in the aviation field. Therrien notes, “Those post-secondary institutions are working closely with the city to develop the next generation of talent, while the Workforce Development Board highlights where the mismatches are and how they can fill those skills gaps. The Workforce Development Board also works with high schools to let students know about potential post-secondary options that are going to be in demand in the coming decade. There definitely is, and this isn’t unique to Peterborough, a skills mismatch. The aviation industry is a big one where there’s a huge shortage of labor and Peterborough is well positioned to play a strong role in support of this sector.”
Employing over 100 people, the Peterborough Airport is another of the city’s larger employers and has seen major investment from Peterborough over the past 50 years. According to Therrien, “There has been a lot of money going there for expansion. It’s technically situated in the county of Peterborough, but we pay all the freight to keep that airport running. There have been upgrades done like stormwater management and recently the city has struck its Airport Strategic Initiatives Committee to talk about ways to keep supporting that airport going forward and taking advantage of economic opportunities that will come, especially when things get back to normal for air travel. Toronto Pearson Airport is going to be at capacity very soon, so there are some businesses there that are looking to move to smaller communities.” Part of the airport expansion plan included lengthening the 7000-foot runway to accommodate large aircraft.
Looking forward to fully reopening the City of Peterborough at the end of COVID, Mayor Therrien shares her thoughts on planning for the future. “We are just continuing to figure out how to adapt and come through COVID, but then also how to be proactive and plan for a more resilient city so that if a health crisis like this hits again, we are ready. A year and a half ago, none of us were thinking about this, but it’s made us realize that we need to have some plans. Our emergency bylaw for the city was designed to deal with a flood or a fire. A quick natural emergency that was then finished and you could clean it up. A public health emergency is very different, so we’re working on a new bylaw to take the lessons that we’ve learned from COVID and make sure we are prepared next time to keep industry and employment sustained during these types of events.”
With so many diverse opportunities and unique experiences, Peterborough is a perfect place to live, learn, and discover. It has something for everyone.
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AT A GLANCE
What: A thriving, entrepreneurial city; population approx. 85,000
Where: On the Otonabee River, northeast of Toronto
Coco Paving Inc. – www.cocopaving.com
Coco Group is one of only a few fully vertically integrated heavy civil contractors in Canada with ratings and capabilities available to complete heavy civil projects of varying scope and complexity. Coco Group provides a wide range of self-performed construction services including; Asphalt Paving and Production, Asphalt Cement Production, Asphalt Milling, Cold-in-Place Recycling, Concrete Paving and Production, Structures, Aggregate Production and Supply, Earthwork, Grading, Underground Servicing, Electrical Servicing, Highway Maintenance and Concrete Pipe and Box Culvert Manufacturing.