City might be at the edge of a tipping point with economic development plans.

By Pepper Parr

February 28, 2014


Council met as a Committee of the Whole and used a workshop format to listen to the people doing the thinking behind the new economic development organization the city manager thinks should be put in place.

It was a fantastic meeting – we heard some of the smartest people this city has seen sitting at the council chamber horse shoe explaining to council how economic development could be improved.

The direction is to create corporations that will be owned by the city and charged with bringing new companies to Burlington.  City general manager Scott Stewart and Burlington Economic Development Corporation (BEDC) board member Pat Sugrue led the explanation while lawyer Charles Keizer  explained the rather intricate collection of corporations that would be formed.  Lest anyone think this was going to be a group of people picking up fat fees it was made very clear that these were going to be very lean organizations with a mandate the improve growth.

Is the city about to begin a process that brings real economic development to town? Do the parking lots offer economic development opportunities and will there be better relationships with the development sector?

Two points came close to jumping off the page.  Gerry Smallgange pointed out that BEDC does not have a “deal maker”; has never had a “deal maker” and that the city has to re-think the way it has zoned its employment lands. City manager Jeff Fielding made the point that the Bronte Creek lands are going to have to be mixed developments if there is ever to be any development on those lands.  He also pointed to the Navistar property at th corner of Guelph Line and Harvester Road and said there was never going to be another operation similar to what is on the site now.

Fielding said the city needs to begin working with Emshie Development to get something on that property – and at the same time find a way to work with the Ontario Ministry of Transportation to overcome some of the obstacles as to what can be built in and around the major traffic intersections leading onto the QEW.

It was a two-hour meeting during which some startling opportunities were laid out.  We knew that changes in the structure and purpose of the BEDC were vital – this was the first the public got to see as to how bold these people seem prepared to be.

Malcolm Gladwell wrote in his seminal book, The Tipping Point, that events build up and can reach a point where a direction can be changed.  Burlington just might be approaching a badly needed tipping point.

Burlington is in one of those awkward situations where much of the developable land is in the hands of a few corporations who are just sitting on it.  Most would like to see their holdings converted from “employment lands” to places where they can build residential housing.

Burlington doesn’t need any more residential housing – it needs new businesses to move to the city – and that hasn’t been happening.  It needs better working relationships with the development sector, it needs better working relationships with the agencies that the city.  In time it will become evident that one of the biggest hurdles the IKEA opportunity on the North Service Road could not overcome was the Conservation Authority.

Add to that some of the near toxic “bad blood” that exists between the Paletta corporation and the city.  General manager Scott Stewart said the city needs to “get the problems of the past behind us” which is going to call for a different approach on the part of both the city’s planning department and the key people at Paletta.

Some time ago the BEDC chose Pat Paletta as the Entrepreneur of the year and hoped that wold be a first step in the “kiss and make up” process that is necessary.  Son Angela Paletta was asked to be the Honorary Chair of the Burlington Community Foundation where he did a superb job and worked the room as well as any politician we’ve seen.

What became very clear during the Committee of the Whole meeting was the need to significantly upgrade the way the BEDC has done business – Pat Sugrue, who ran Fearman’s Pork when it was bought in November 2010 by Sun Capital Partners from Maple Leaf Foods Inc. for $20 million.

Sugre told the meeting that Sun Capital moved very quickly and scooped another off that was on the table because they were able to commit to the deal in seven days and close it within 45 days. Burlington hasn’t see a deal like that in the last century.

Sugre made another important point: municipal people do not, cannot and should not be in the deal making business.  It takes people with skills sets that don’t exist in a municipal environment.

There is a lot more on this story – for the moment the time line the city wants to work to on this is very aggressive they want to have it all wrapped up before the BEDC AGM late in May.

They are going to squeeze some public information sessions in there somewhere.  The Gazette was the only media in the room for this meeting of Council.  We will keep you posted.

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