Waterloo is one of the most dynamic economic regions in North America. An epicentre of activity where Google, Deloitte, D2L, North and other top tech companies mingle with a vibrant start-up ecosystem. Today, Waterloo is home to the second highest density of startup companies and one of the fastest growing tech talent markets in North America. Planned real estate development in the core of Kitchener – Waterloo Region’s largest community – tops $1 billion. Something big is happening here.
It was a very different story 15 years ago.
For more than a century, brick-and-beam factories defined the downtown skyline. In the 20th century they were beacons of economic success. In 2004, they were symbols of fading prominence.
The City of Kitchener knew it needed reinvention. Local infrastructure was aging. The lifeblood of the economy – manufacturing – was slowly declining in the face of intense competition.
Turning the tide required a bold new approach to city-building. Kitchener’s Economic Development Investment Fund (EDIF) made that new approach possible.
A unique $110 million investment in the local economy, the fund was established in 2004 to stimulate growth, employment, development of Kitchener’s downtown. It leveraged matching investments to multiply the impact, and the end-goal was a direct and indirect return on investment. It also aligned with Region of Waterloo objectives, including reduced urban sprawl.
In essence, it was a strategy built on community collaboration. All orders of government, post-secondary education, and business needed to work together.
“[The fund] represented a fundamental shift; the goal of the fund was to reenergize the core and create an education and knowledge creation cluster.”
-Carl Zehr, Former Mayor, City of Kitchener (1997-2014)
First, the core needed an influx of youth and energy.
Community leaders worked with the Region’s two world-class universities – Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Waterloo – to find a solution. Soon, Laurier’s School of Social Work (2006) and UW’s School of Pharmacy (2008) joined the downtown core. Seen as unconventional at the time, these investments quickly became anchor tenants for economic growth in the core.
Next, Kitchener turned its focus to renewing the aging architecture.
A long-time factory town, Kitchener’s downtown was full of shuttered brick-and-beam industrial sites built for historic employers like the Lang Tanning Company – at one time the largest supplier of sole leather in the British Empire – and Kaufman Footwear. After finding partners in the development community, these two properties were transformed into hubs of innovation and living. This set off a renewed real estate boom in downtown Kitchener. From 2004 to 2013, building permits in the area were valued at over $750 million. The Region of Waterloo supported this initiative through exemptions for downtown core development charges.
The Lang Tannery epitomised the massive change taking place in the downtown core.
After redevelopment, the EDIF worked with Communitech to convert the site of Kitchener’s first major industry into one of the world’s premier hubs for innovation. The new hub housed start-ups and scale-ups, as well as established tech companies wanting to be a part of the unique energy. In only a few short years, the downtown core was transformed from blue collar to high tech. The community now has a flourishing community of nearly 1,500 start-up companies.
“A whole intersection of talent, of knowledge, of idea-sharing is happening here, and even though start-ups would move out of the space that exists at Communitech, they still wanted to be nearby, they still wanted to be part of that ecosystem and that has really allowed the overall scene to flourish as much as it has.”
-Berry Vrbanovic, Mayor, City of Kitchener (2014-Present)
Collaboration was always important in Waterloo Region. Since the 1790s, local Mennonite communities have come together when a big job was at hand, whether bringing in the harvest or raising a barn.
The spirit of collaboration remains one of Waterloo Region’s greatest strengths. It underpins our ability to attract the best and brightest talent. It enables our ecosystem of innovation. It helps a diverse group of established and emerging industries grow.
“It has been extremely gratifying for those of us that were involved in the process: our council, staff, and private sector partners, to see how people have rallied around the vision and helped make it happen. It has literally taken thousands of people to achieve the transformation that is underway now.”
-Rod Regier, Former City of Kitchener Executive Director of Economic Development (2005-2016)
The EDIF helped Kitchener, and Waterloo Region as a whole, reinvent itself. Cities across North America have used the fund as a template for similar reinvention strategies of their own.
Success breeds confidence, and now the City and business community know they can take on whatever lies ahead, together.
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