Jewel on the St. Lawrence

City of Brockville

The measure of any healthy city can be seen in how it rebounds during a recession or a downturn in its economic sectors. Brockville, one of Ontario’s hidden gems, has weathered the recent GFC quite well and has transitioned itself nicely into new fields.

The city is rich with potential and, under the facilitation of Director of Economic Development David Paul, Brockville is ready to become a city that people are going to hear a lot more about.

Brockville is situated halfway between Montreal and Toronto, on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River. The “City of the Thousand Islands,” as it is also known, was named after Sir Isaac Brock, the British Army officer responsible for defending Upper Canada against the United States during the war of 1812. The historic municipality is one of Ontario’s oldest urban centres, having been incorporated in 1832.

Brockville’s location is certainly advantageous. Being on Highway 401, midway between two of the biggest economic engines in the country, one has the perfect placement for manufacturing to serve both markets. Add to this the proximity to the US – served by two international bridges – and access to railway-served port facilities in nearby Prescott and ideal manufacturing infrastructure becomes apparent.

The city is currently undergoing an economic transition of sorts. Long a manufacturing base for eastern Ontario, it still has a sizable workforce, but this sector has been shifting, and Brockville has had to adapt and refocus into other areas. “When I talk about transition, I focus on looking at the economies – the wealth engines of the community – a little differently and also diversifying into some other sectors,” explains David.

Due to the labour advantage, a number of plants from multinationals have left the community over the last fifteen years for countries such as China or India. Coca-Cola and Black & Decker have already left, and Abbot Laboratories closed last year. However, the manufacturing sector is still strong as local companies have taken over with new manufacturing enterprises. In some cases, people who have been laid off are being rehired into the new businesses.

Major manufacturing employers are companies such as Proctor & Gamble, known for its household detergents; Canarm, which makes ceiling fans and lights; Covidien, a global leader in disposable medical devices and other healthcare devices; Newterra, a designer and manufacturer of self-contained water treatment systems; Shell Canada’s oil blending plant and Burnbrae Farms Ltd., an egg producer and processer. Pharmaceuticals have been a major employer in Brockville for over one hundred years. Trillium Health Care (originally Warner-Lambert) does contract manufacturing for drug companies like Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer. 3M also operates two factories in Brockville, manufacturing occupational health and safety products at one and tape at the other.

With youth unemployment rates higher than the national average, Ontario is one of the toughest places in Canada for young people looking for work. Brockville is trying to do something about this and runs an entrepreneurship centre with programming for business start-ups and for people under the age of twenty-nine. The centre provides consulting, and help acquiring permits, licenses and grants help for a person starting a business.

The centre also runs a program is called The Summer Company, which encourages high school and college students to take up building new business when they leave their education. It provides start-up money, advice and mentorship to kick-off a new summer business. “This is an ongoing thing and we will be continuing to track that. The other part is the entrepreneurship where we provide the grants. That program is starting this year and should be launched around the first of April.”

One of the key strengths of the city is the beauty of its location. “We are the eastern gateway to the Thousand Islands, which represents a very enviable lifestyle,” shares David. “Entrepreneurs are relocating here, which is driving a lot of new business ventures into the community.” The resort style living is luring so-called Zoomers (baby boomers close to retiring but who want an active lifestyle and are still engaged in some step down businesses), many of them from Ottawa and Montreal. “It is a whole turnaround for our downtown.” The ‘Zoomers’ are creating a resurgence in Brockville’s downtown core which translates into condominium development and waterfront development.

The lifestyle afforded by its position on the river is enhanced the islands the city owns. The city has sixteen islands with beaches, docking, picnicking and overnight camping facilities. Its convenience is a major draw. One can leave work at five and, minutes later, be sipping wine, enjoying a barbeque, watching ocean going vessels and having a campfire. Tour boats offer scenic trips through the islands and, surrounding the islands, is some of the best fresh-water shipwreck diving in the world.

The United Nations has given Brockville its safe community designation through the World Health Organization. The area is also a UNESCO site. “Obviously we are going to have a slant bias based on our economic development. So, we look to third party endorsements to validate the fact that this is a special place in the world.”

The region truly is a special place. The National Geographic Society’s Center for Sustainable Destinations has honoured the Brockville area’s Frontenac Arch with a geotourism charter, one of only a handful in the world. Geotourism, as defined by the society, is tourism that “sustains or enhances the geographical character of a place: its environment, culture, aesthetics, heritage and the well-being of its residents.”

David explains that, “There are sixteen biospheres in Canada and we are one of them. It’s called the Frontenac Arch and, by definition of a biosphere, it has some unique geographic, archaeological and historic elements. The Canadian Shield also penetrates this area. There is a lot of interesting flora and fauna, and we also possess some of Upper Canada’s most unique architecture.”

As the Thousand Islands region has such an incredibly intertwined ecology, history and economy, another draw to the city will be the Aquatarium. This 25,000 square foot interactive learning attraction is opening later this year with a focus on developing a curiosity and interest in the river area surrounding Brockville. The centre will feature an otter exhibit and walkthrough aquariums filled with fish from the region.

Through seventeen different signature exhibits called ‘quests’, the Aquatarium also plans to immerse visitors of all ages in various historical stories. Exhibits will feature ship building, mast climbing and events from the past, such as the pirates and rum running that once were part of the area. “We have an old ship that’s going to be recreated (the Magedoma), talking about the steam era. It will be a fascinating look into the past.” The Aquatarium will also display information about tall ships – the huge-masted sailing ships that once ruled the waves.

In 2013, Brockville held its very successful Tall Ships Festival. Ten tall ships, from all around the world, visited. “What we’ve done is to make our port tall ships friendly, so we have all the facilities and services needed.” This encompasses not just the depth of the water, but the electrical hook-ups and the welcome mat. The city is trying to encourage sailing adventures for youth, which is what the festival was built on.

“This is an investment over time. It will be a few years before we get all our attractions developed. Brockville has the first railway tunnel in Canada which goes right under City Hall for about 1,700 feet; we are opening up that tunnel for rides and the experience of rail. There will be rail dining cars.”This particular line was once used by the manufacturing sector to bring goods from the main line to the ships.

Promoting Brockville’s many attractions has been acknowledged as the National Community Economic Development Award was recently given to the Economic Development Office. “What we did was to put together a culmination of all the activities and all the developments that are occurring on our waterfront. The Royal Bank of Canada gives an award annually to the best project or development that is occurring in Canada, and we won it in 2013. It encompasses how we are turning the corner, looking at changing our economy and how all the pieces are starting to come together.”

Brockville is also the birthplace of the Canadian flag and two bills – currently before the federal and provincial governments – propose officially designating it as such. Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson chose the Honourable John Ross Matheson, MP for Leeds County, to steer the Parliamentary Flag Committee in 1965. After long hours of delicate diplomacy, he was able to achieve a consensus from all parties on a new flag and the National Flag of Canada was raised for the first time on Parliament Hill on February 15 of that year, marking this as its fiftieth anniversary. “From a communications and marketing perspective, we feel that we will get noticed. Let’s hang our hat on this one, because it is a good thing to do with the celebrations for the flag – which should be right across Canada.”

With the ability to adapt to change while embracing the best of its past, Brockville is in a healthy place. David has invited me to come and see his city, and I think that I would be a fool not to take him up on that offer. See you in Brockville!

For more information about City of Brockville, please visit http://www.brockville.com

October 17, 2017, 4:25 PM EDT

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