City of the Future

Stratford

Stratford, Ontario is internationally recognized for its award winning art scene. The small city, nestled in pastoral countryside just a short drive from Toronto and the U.S., is also making waves for its robust economy and long term business opportunities.

The city’s successes are no accident. The community is working hard to stay ahead in a rapidly changing marketplace.

Mayor Dan Mathieson says that a diverse economy is one of the community’s strongest assets and a key reason for Stratford’s remarkable success. The range of economic opportunities is particularly impressive for a city of only 30,000 people. “Our economic sectors come from culture, agriculture, manufacturing, the service industry, and institutional offerings,” Mayor Mathieson explains. “When you put that all together in a community the size of Stratford, we have incredible breadth and depth. It is what you would see in a large urban centre as opposed to a small urban community in an agricultural region.”

The town is carefully preparing for the future to ensure that its current economic success continues long term. Many of the city’s forward-thinking strategies focus on connectivity and technology. “We understand that there is going to be a challenge in the coming years put on smaller communities,” Mayor Mathieson says. “For people to stay in smaller communities, we need to be able to offer the quality of life connectivity [brings], not only through transportation, but also through broadband. Our hope is that by building out our broadband connectivity, embracing technology in all the different sectors, and having the University of Waterloo’s digital campus in Stratford, we will be getting a new, younger generation of people thinking in a way that will help sustain our community through population and tax growth.”

This economic stimulation and increased revenue will enable Stratford to continue to offer its rich breadth of services, and to “preserve the institutions and experiences that people have come to expect in Stratford.”

Stratford’s efforts regarding connectivity have made the town an international leader in community development. In fact, Stratford has won a coveted spot in the Intelligent Community Forum’s Top Seven the last three years in a row. This prestigious ranking system examines around 400 communities worldwide and judges them according to five key elements of community development. The first consideration is whether or not the community is treating broadband as a basic utility. “And the reason that you need to treat it as a utility is because in the future economy, it is going to be just as important as electricity, water, sewers and roads,” Mayor Mathieson explains.

Secondly, the Intelligent Community Forum looks for communities that are fostering knowledge within the workforce. “Not just new employees, or new people entering the workforce,” Mayor Mathieson points out. “What are you doing to make sure that existing manufacturers and existing employers in various sectors advance the knowledge of their employees as it relates to technology in the future?” Third, the Forum looks at what a community is doing to foster innovation within its business climate to remain competitive in a global marketplace. The fourth consideration covers digital inclusion. “How are you making sure that your plan does not hit social economic barriers where people of different social levels aren’t forgotten because of their age and stage in life, their income, or education? How do you make sure that everyone moves forward as a community so you don’t become a divided community, but you become a more holistic community?” Lastly, the Forum examines the community’s marketing and advocacy abilities. “What is your social development plan and how do you market and advocate for your goals and vision for the community on a global basis?” Mayor Mathieson reports. “How do you collaborate with partners?”

Stratford has passed all of these tests with flying colours. “We are recognized as a community that, based on those guideposts, represents best practice,” Mayor Mathieson points out. “We are one of the top seven communities that represent best practice in the world.” Already firmly planted at the top, Stratford has made the strategic decision not to enter the contest next year. After four years of competing, the city wants to take time to evaluate and analyze how to improve its standing even further. “We want to figure out how we move forward from here,” Mayor Mathieson explains. “It’s time to take a restock of what we are doing and find if there are even better ways to do it.”

This commitment to continuously work toward improvement has been key to Stratford’s ongoing success; so has the cooperation of the community. “We have been blessed with a strong collaborative effort,” Mayor Mathieson points out, “not only from the support of city council and city staff, but also from the broader community.” The entire business community has “helped support and underwrite this effort over the last number of years,” he adds. This includes financial support as well as a willingness to share strategies and information. In fact, sharing information between institutions has been particularly beneficial in helping the entire community achieve common benchmarks. For instance, the local hospital, library, university and school board have all worked together to share information and encourage collaboration across a broader platform, Mayor Mathieson explains. He also gives credit to Stratford’s citizenry as a whole. “The majority of residents completely understand that continuing to do what we have always done is probably not an option if we want to remain competitive and viable in the future economy.”

Preparing for the future economy is important – but so is enjoying life. Fortunately, Stratford offers the best of both worlds. The city provides many leisure opportunities, from public skating and aquatics to youth dances and multi-use sports fields, as well as a range of recreation programs for residents of all ages. Stratford also boasts the most parkland per capita of any city in Canada. Biking and walking trials abound. Waterfowl flock to the banks of the town’s bucolic Avon River during the warm summer months. Surrounded by scenic countryside, the community is named one of the top 10 best Canadian road trips by Reader’s Digest.

And, of course, there are the famous Stratford festivals. The Stratford Summer Music Festival hosts over 100 indoor and outdoor events featuring more than 350 individual artists. The six week celebration strives to offer a wide range of musical genres and brings some of the world’s best musicians to the Stratford stage. This year, for example, the renowned Vienna Boys Choir was a featured performer.

The Savour Stratford Food Festival has been recognized as the best culinary festival in the province for the last two years in a row. “It supports and fosters the economic prosperity of the agricultural community within a hundred miles of Stratford,” Mayor Mathieson points out. “It gets people to think locally when it comes to their food choices and to think about the production that happens very close to home.” Gourmet offerings include fresh organic produce, artisanal cheeses and breads, Amish-raised heritage pork and goat’s milk, and grass-fed organic beef from surrounding Perth County.

And The Stratford Festival (formally the Stratford Shakespeare Festival) is the largest classical repertory theatre in the country. “They are world recognized,” Mayor Mathieson reports. “They put great product on the stage for us.” The theatre sells over 500,000 tickets a year, generates $140 million of gross domestic product, $65 million of taxation at all three levels of government, and employs 3,000 people directly and indirectly within Stratford. The festival’s prestige and success “has allowed us to build an international brand,” Mayor Mathieson adds.

Stratford has enjoyed tremendous success, but the city isn’t sitting on its laurels. Mayor Mathieson believes that the community should always be a work in progress, and that continuous improvement is crucial. “The challenge for us is to always be able to move forward. We have to move forward as a group to ensure that we are competitive and meeting the needs of our residents.” Fortunately, the community agrees. “We have a supportive community that has resiliency,” Mayor Mathieson says. “That has always moved us forward. Now is no different.” Armed with a diverse economy and cutting edge connectivity – as well as a strong arts and leisure sector – Stratford is well prepared to continue leading the way.

December 14, 2017, 10:07 AM EST