Jeff Heuchert, Stratford Gazette
In terms of the city’s ongoing economic renewal, Mayor Dan Mathieson believes there will be much to celebrate in the months ahead.
Next week the city will host the fourth annual Canada 3.0 digital media conference, while construction on the new University of Waterloo Stratford Campus is expected to be completed in July, with a public opening scheduled for Oct. 16. In the fall the school will welcome 60 undergraduate students.
The city is also beginning its Official Plan review that will address future areas for growth in the city, while in June it is anticipated the old fairgrounds site will go to tender.
Mathieson said the sale of the approximately 24-acre site “gives us the greatest opportunity for infill in the city’s history,” while the money earned from its sale will go towards the city’s commitment to the university campus construction.
The mayor delivered his annual State of the City address, hosted by the Stratford and District Chamber of Commerce, last Thursday, telling the gathering of business owners, workers and representatives from the city’s high-tech sector that Stratford continues to finds new ways to refine and reinvent its economy.
Mathieson said Stratford “is becoming a global force in digital technology,” noting that it was only four years ago that the city first set a goal to become a centre for the high-tech information and technology sector.
He said with the Intelligent Community Forum deciding to set up its first international Institute for the Study of the Intelligent Community in Stratford, along with the digital media work already underway at the Stratford Institute, “the work we do here will not only be replicated, but shared around the world.”
As a Top 7 Intelligent Community for the second consecutive year, Mathieson noted municipal representatives from the Southwest Economic Alliance, for which he is chair, would be coming to Stratford in June to begin work on a smart plan for the region.
“They've seen the success Stratford has enjoyed, they see our plan with regards to skills development, and they all want to be a part of it,” he added.
Many international companies have also taken notice of the city’s new direction. Mathieson noted the city has become a “living lab” for high-tech companies to come and test their technology and products, like Toshiba’s LED lights, LeoNovus’s Internet-TV platform, and the recently announced “smart” home technology from RIM.
He added the city last month signed an agreement with Clemson University's International Centre for Automotive Research to work on developing new technologies for vehicles here in Stratford, and just the day before his state-of-city address received a commitment from a company called Next Methanol Inc. that is investigating developing a test facility in the city.
Mathieson said Stratford must also foster growth from within, and noted the city has been in talks with the Golden Triangle Angel Network, a group of high investors, to ensure new graduates and entrepreneurs have access to seed money to commercialize their ideas without having to leave Stratford.
“We want them to look at Stratford as a place they want to put up a house, build a family, start a business,” he added.
Jobs in the new economy will be found in health care, leisure and hospitality, business services, retail, advanced manufacturing, and the digital economy, he said, adding, “we're on the mark to provide jobs in all of those sectors.”
But it wasn’t all good news during the mayor’s address.
He said Stratford is “on the high side of debt” at around $89 million, has an unemployment rate sitting around 5.6 per cent, and has an Ontario Works and welfare case load that, while dropping, is still higher than usual.
No matter how “smart” the community, it will have its challenges, Mathieson acknowledged, adding, however, it is how the city deals with those ripples and moves forward that is important.
“Stratford has been able over a series of times when economic downturns hit been able to renew ourselves in a strategic way,” he added.
“Over the 158 years since Stratford was incorporated, we've had various opportunities for economic refinement, for economic input and economic reinvention, and we continue to do it.”