The collision of talent and opportunity
By Mayor Jeff Lehman | Photos Jennifer Klementti
Great cities are characterized by dynamic economies, where successful companies and organizations are borne out of the collision of talent and opportunity.
This is why attracting talent has become the economic talisman for cities across the globe. In my ten years as an elected official in Barrie, we have joined the search for the secret sauce: that legendary but elusive alchemy that can take a town or city not known as an engine of entrepreneurship and make it a powerhouse of innovation.
The argument has been well made that top talent is attracted to places that offer a fulfilling lifestyle. It’s often said that, in turn, a city should ensure it offers all the necessary components of a fulfilling lifestyle. And therein of course lies the challenge. Everyone has a different idea of what fulfills them. For some it’s a party lifestyle; live music, nightlife, a thriving restaurant scene is key. For others it’s recreation — being Canadians that can mean lots of snow as well as lots of sun. Sports, professional and amateur can be a tie that binds. And for others it’s a more quiet beauty — waterfront parks, quiet cafés, or just proximity to friends, family, or institutions.
“…we have joined the search for the secret sauce: that legendary but elusive alchemy that can take a town or city not known as an engine of entrepreneurship and make it a powerhouse of innovation.”
Barrie’s entrepreneurs would likely give you one or more of the above as an answer. One that sticks out in my mind is a young and fast-growing tech firm, TygerShark, that was located in a suburban location in an industrial area. Knowing their employees liked the thriving food and drink scene, live music, and culture of downtown Barrie, they moved into space in the heart of the city. For them, challenges like parking and older buildings were more than offset by the benefit they saw for the employees of being in such a vibrant environment. Longer workdays were easier to tolerate with places to socialize and interesting events in the area.
The impact of that food and drink scene is hard to overstate. Busy people and takeout food go together like Matt Damon and Ben Affleck; and there’s a 6 block area of downtown Barrie that teems with more than 60 independently owned places to eat. If the way to a busy entrepreneur’s heart is through their stomach, downtown Barrie is an easy place to love. Canada is a country where climate and related suburban growth patterns can suppress socializing and the vibrancy of public places. But where we get it right — those teeming cauldrons of food, drink, entertainments, and comfort, from George Street in St. John’s to Main Street in Vancouver — we are actually building places for socializing and for the economy.
“…a city should ensure it offers all the necessary components of a fulfilling lifestyle.”
Those places aren’t just about the food, it’s about places for people to meet who are doing interesting things. Nobody showcased this better than TygerShark, who not long after moving to downtown Barrie, partnered with another downtown business — Flying Monkey Craft Brewery — to send a weather balloon with GoPro cameras attached to the edge of space. The fact that the balloon’s platform also carried a bottle of Flying Monkey’s AntiGravity Lager was just brilliant marketing.
It’s not always about downtown — it’s often about the lifestyle of the region as a whole. A German autoparts manufacturer, BurgerGruppe, who make gearboxes for seats in luxury cars, wanted to establish their first North American location. They focused on function — a site with good road access, with shovel-ready land and infrastructure, surrounded by other value-added manufacturers and related uses. But it was the combination of the lifestyle of Ontario’s cottage country to the north and Canada’s corporate and financial capital to the south that led them to Barrie.
This location is a sweet spot, one that links the urbanity of greater Toronto with the pure bliss of Ontario’s cottage country. And for those business leaders seeking an environment that will be its own top talent recruiting tool, it’s hard to imagine a better one.