What’s the main ingredient in Waterloo Region’s secret sauce?
“People in this region really want to jump in and help,” Amber French, Managing Partner and co-founder of Catalyst Capital, told a gathering of mayors from Ontario’s largest cities during a panel discussion at the Communitech Hub in Kitchener.
The discussion, part of the Big City Mayors annual meeting, focused on how community leaders transformed Kitchener’s city core from a tired, outdated downtown to a vibrant centre that boasts a thriving tech industry, new residential offerings and a growing number of entertainment and cultural attractions.
“We’ve tried as a city to take a holistic approach to city-building where the public, private and not-for-profit sectors all work collaboratively towards the same goals,” said Kitchener Mayor Berry Vrbanovic. “As former Governor General David Johnson referred to it when he was President of the University of Waterloo, he referred to what we do here – and the enabling work that Communitech does – as our ‘barn-raising spirit.’ Others call it the ‘secret sauce’ that makes our region a success. And today we’re looking forward to sharing some of that sauce with you.”
One of the building blocks of Kitchener’s “course correction,” as Vrbanovic called it, was the establishment in 2004 of a $110-million Economic Development Investment Fund (EDIF). The 10-year fund enabled the city to invest in a number of multi-partner projects that attracted major new initiatives to the downtown. These include Wilfrid Laurier University’s School of Social Work, UW’s School of Pharmacy and the renovated Tannery Building, where Communitech became a major tenant (and home to numerous startups) in 2010.
Such projects were catalysts that led others to move to the downtown’s west end, now known as the city’s Innovation District. Those that followed include UW’s Velocity startup program, Google and more than a dozen other tech companies. In turn, the Kitchener core has experienced a mini-explosion in residential development, with new condo and apartment buildings going up and bringing more – and younger – residents downtown.
The city's EDIF fund was so successful that a similar follow-up fund was approved in 2020.
Another building block for Kitchener’s downtown transformation was the regional light rapid transit (LRT) system, said Vrbanovic. Built for transportation and economic-development purposes, the $900-million light-rail project – funded equally by the region, the province and the federal government – connects the north end of Waterloo to the south end of Kitchener, with bus connections to other parts of the region.
“Since the creation of EDIF, and together with the regional investment in the LRT… we’ve seen over $2 billion in downtown development and nearly $10 billion across our city in terms of residential development, commercial and tech-innovation development,” said Vrbanovic.
Collaboration and a strong sense of community also drive Waterloo Region’s tech sector, said Communitech CEO and President Chris Albinson.
“The Communitech Hub is, very intentionally, a community space,” he told the mayors. “Communitech was started by founders for founders 25 years ago. One of our passions is getting behind community efforts and really supporting them.”
A good example is the role played by tech leaders during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, when access to personal protective equipment (PPE) was in short supply.
A few individuals and organizations, including Amber French and Communitech, mobilized friends and colleagues across the community. In short order, a donation drive was established whereby organizations that had an excess supply of things like face masks donated them to front-line workers who really needed them. To bolster the supply chain, French and others created an online marketplace where Canadian vendors could sell Canadian-made PPE products.
Albinson also pointed to another example of community collaboration: the series of “future of” initiatives led by Communitech and embraced by leaders from business, municipalities, health care and post-secondary education.
The intent of these projects is to bring leaders from specific sectors, such as municipal government and health care, together with leaders from the tech sector. The goal is to identify a sector’s most pressing challenges and then find innovative Canadian-made solutions.
The pandemic provided a real-time test. During the height of the pandemic, Communitech executives met weekly with the heads of area hospitals and the president of the University of Waterloo.
“We would say, ‘Okay, what do you need?’ And then we could go out to the 1,200 startups that are here and say, ‘Who can build this? Who can solve this problem?’ And then we’d connect the dots."
“This is a pretty magical thing,” Albinson added. “We’ve actually named it. We’re calling it an ‘integrated market.’ And we’re continuing to build on it.”
Another member of the panel discussion was Justin Readman, General Manager of Development Services at the City of Kitchener. He, too, emphasized the value of working in partnership with the whole community.
“The fundamental belief that our organization has is collaboration,” he said. “So, building strategies with the community and having city staff serve as technical advisers rather than as the experts that are doing everything behind closed doors and then showing something at a local meeting.”
As the panel discussion wrapped up, many of the mayors seemed impressed and curious to learn more.
“I’m in!” said Burlington Mayor Marianne Meed Ward. “This has been so inspiring. I guess part of my question is, ‘How do I join?’”