We get it, Toronto. You think you’re so fly with your David Chang restaurants and your swanky island airport. And yeah, sure, you’re the biggest burg in the country, with 30,000 immigrants choosing you as their new home every year. But while you were busy struggling with your budget and a dysfunctional council, the benign suburb that matured on your west flank and then, in 1974, declared autonomy, grew up into the sixth-largest city in Canada.
Brace yourself, but it just might be kicking your butt.
Mississauga, you say? Land of mall rats and three-car garages? Think again: The ’Saug offers more hectares of green space per resident than Toronto, not to mention freedom from the plague of Toronto’s congestion, which stretches from one side of the core to the other. And, speaking of traffic, while the Jarvis Street bike lanes will be ripped out by the end of the year in the Big Smoke, just this week in Mississauga, construction crews were putting in lanes for cyclists on Bristol Road.
Rather than bickering over whether the waterfront should contain a Ferris wheel, a casino or a naturalized mixed-use community, in Mississauga, council was unanimous in support of a plan to transform its waterfront into a sustainable area where residential and commercial development are balanced with trails and parks.
And a poll a year ago ranked Mississauga mayor Hazel McCallion as the most popular in the country, with a 78-per-cent approval rating (this despite her conflict of interest woes!), compared to Rob Ford, who – with 37 per cent approval – came in second-last among the 15 largest cities’ mayors.
So, starting today, in a series of Q&As, The Globe and Mail is going to pose the inevitable question: Is it possible that all you 416ers might be able to learn something from Mississauga?
But it’s still a bedroom community, you say? Sorry: Business in the ’Saug is so strong that more commuters head into the city’s core each day than leave it (okay, the core consists mostly of Square One and the curvaceous Marilyn Monroe towers, but they’re working on it).
With its commercial tax rate of 2.2 per cent, compared to Toronto’s 3.4 per cent, it has little trouble selling itself to companies. At the end of 2011, there were more than 54,000 businesses within its limits – and 61 of those were Canadian offices of Fortune 500 companies.
In the first of our Mississauga series, The Globe and Mail spoke to Bonnie Crombie, rookie councillor and former Liberal MP. After stints in public relations for major companies such as McDonald’s and Walt Disney, she now works on behalf of the 9,000 businesses in her ward.
With her indigo suede stilettos and platinum blonde layers, Ms. Crombie seems more marketing executive than municipal politician. Since winning a Mississauga city council by-election last fall, she’s become the most vocal cheerleader for economic development in the city. We caught up with her in her plush Mississauga Civic Centre office on a wet fall day this week.
You’ve lived in Toronto before, in Los Angeles –
Boston, Vancouver – oh, and Paris, France too...
...and you’ve worked for a lot of fairly big corporations. After all of that, what makes someone settle in Mississauga?
The quality of life. I think we chose this as a place to raise our children. A place that accepts diversity. It’s tolerant, respectful, but also has great schools. A great governance, may I say. It’s just a wonderful place to live.
What makes it a magnet for Fortune 500 companies?
We go out of our way to identify sectors and bring companies here. We have a very competitive tax rate. We have a great quality of life that we offer. We’re close to transportation. We’re close to the airport, 400-series highways. We try to keep our red tape low. We keep our bureaucracy low.
Regularly, the mayor and I go out to corporations and ask them what are their needs, how can we better serve them? I think that goes a long way to telling businesses we have their interests at heart. I’ve done newsletters dedicated directly to businesses.
Would you say that Mississauga is more business-friendly than a big city like Toronto?
Yeah, I think it is. We have a very active board of trade that also helps settle businesses. We have Enterprise Mississauga. A company can come here and get advice on how to write a business plan, or how to draft their strategic plan.
When they’re building their new headquarters, we try to make it easy for them to get them here and get them open and operating and getting people employed. Because that’s what it’s all about at the end of the day: creating jobs, creating growth for our community.
For decades, Mississauga had the space to grow out, but now things have slowed down and getting a balanced budget isn’t as easy for the city as before.
We are certainly out of developable lands, and we have the same needs as other cities that are intensifying and going through a densification process. Our infrastructure deficit is $75-million to $80-million each year just to keep up and that’s not on the big-ticket items like the public transit we want to build. Where that money comes from has yet to be determined.
The City of Toronto has the advantage that they have additional revenue tools. They have the municipal land-transfer tax. We’ve looked at it as well and we’re going to look at it again.
What are the some of the challenges for intensification when this is a city that was built around cul-de-sacs?
Certainly, there’s resistance from some of the communities. I think people always resist change. I won’t call it NIMBYism. The reality is we do have to intensify.
Mississauga was originally set up as a bedroom community for Toronto and that’s why you see such large homes and such wide boulevards and streets. But currently, the reverse is true. We are actually a net importer of jobs.
What do you think are the improvements to infrastructure that are necessary to make Mississauga a place that can accommodate all these commuters?
Public transit is key. I know they have debates at Toronto city council about what’s the right mode of transportation, LRTs or subways. We’ve all agreed it’s the LRT. We have a vision of Hurontario as being a University Avenue with an LRT going north and southbound both ways.
We’ll look for ways to connect to the transit systems in Toronto so it’s very smooth for residents. We have the GO trains currently and the buses connecting to Islington or Kipling station but we’ll need that rail link as well.
What do you think Toronto can learn from Mississauga when it comes to attracting and nurturing businesses?
We had a natural advantage in that we had more land. It was easier for companies to locate here and to say ‘We’re moving over because we have more space for our operation to grow.’
Listen to [businesses’] needs. What makes things work for them? Is the planning process is too complicated? Are there delays in getting their approvals for their fire codes and building codes? They’ll tell you quickly what they need and, of course, what they need to make their employees happy. It could be something as simple as a bus shelter out front that would make their lives easier in the wintertime or the rain.
And of course, keep your tax structure low. That keeps everybody happy.
This interview has been condensed and edited