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Sonja Bata in the factory where she dreams of putting condos and research incubators.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Twenty-seven design and architecture students from Carleton University descended this spring on Batawa, Ont., and came up with radical ideas on how the faded factory town could reinvent itself.

In the shuttered shoe factory with its peeling paint, they unveiled models and concepts of artisan studios, urban farming and research incubators - even a microbrewery supplied with locally grown grain.

But one aspect was starkly absent. There was no space in their futuristic renderings for manufacturing, the industry that created Batawa 70 years ago.

Manufacturing "is what people came here for," acknowledged Jean-François Jacques, an architecture student who designed modular rooms where researchers could work and sleep. "But we have to think of a new way for sustaining this town."

That theme applies to countless Canadian towns once dominated by thriving factories. Batawa, a former company town two hours east of Toronto, is a model in how far manufacturing has fallen. Bata Ltd.'s factory closed in 1999, as cost competition from low-wage countries forced the Toronto company to end its Canadian production.

Yet Batawa has one thing going for it that other towns don't - a tireless champion in Sonja Bata, 82, widow of the late industrialist Thomas Bata, and the owner of 610 hectares and the five-storey factory that still dominates the village.

Now, Mrs. Bata has forged a unique partnership with Carleton to make Batawa a living laboratory for the post-industrial future. It started with selected industrial design and architecture projects but the two parties foresee a long-term alliance spanning disciplines - from business to government to urban planning.

"Batawa is a model of university-community collaboration," says Katherine Graham, dean of the public affairs faculty at Ottawa's Carleton - who sees Batawa's potential as a model of community development.

Mrs. Bata now hopes Carleton, and perhaps other educational institutions, will take up space in the old factory, creating a knowledge hub that could share the building with up to 75 condo units. In addition, she wants to add 500 new houses to the town's existing stock of 120 homes.

Mrs. Bata's vision is compelling, but, with some exceptions, potential developers have shied away from her guidelines for sustainable, low-impact housing. "I hate to compromise," she says. "If I say we have design expectations, I really mean it."

With developers licking their wounds from the recession, she is pushing ahead on her own. For the Carleton students, she is more than a benefactor, but a co-conspirator who urges them to be outrageous in their ideas.

If she sounds like a frustrated architect, in fact, she is. She was an architecture student in Switzerland when, in 1946, she married a dashing young industrialist, Thomas Bata, who had transplanted his family's global shoe business to a farmer's field in Ontario to escape the Nazi invasion of his native Czechoslovakia.

She was a partner with her husband in rebuilding Bata around the world in the post-Second World War era. Carleton's international students may have never heard of Batawa before, but they knew the Bata brand from factories in places like Colombia.

In recent years, the aging power couple had pulled back from operations, and Mr. Bata died last September at 93 years old. But Mrs. Bata maintained her feverish pace, devoting attention to the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto. When the family company closed the Batawa plant, she felt responsible for the continuity of the community. She stepped forward to buy the company assets.

The wartime houses built by Bata Ltd. for the Czech shoe makers and their families are all gone. Today, the homes are mostly modern bungalows, occupant-owned, in the midst of Mrs. Bata's large landholdings.

The town sits beside a highway winding along the Trent River, and between two wooded hills. One hill is occupied by a ski club, where Mrs. Bata, who owns the land, has sunk more than $1-million into a new chair lift and improvements.

On the other side of the valley is the family's Batawa home, a one-storey masterpiece by architect John Parkin, who also designed the now demolished Bata headquarters in Toronto. The interior decor suggests time stopped in about 1965. One of the four Bata children has told her mother she expects Doris Day to come sweeping into the living room.

As much money as Mrs. Bata has spent, her most valuable contributions are contacts and enthusiasm. Last fall she lunched with Carleton's new president Roseann Runte, who got swept along by her vision. The result is the current collaboration.

"As long as Mrs. Bata is there, she will drive hard," says John Williams, Mayor of the Quinte West municipality in which Batawa is located.

After years of lobbying, work will finally begin on a vital $3-million water supply link to the village of Frankford to the north. But the jury is still out on what shape Batawa will take in the post-factory era. The area needs jobs, not fanciful ideas, a fact underlined by the recent closing of a Quaker Oats plant in nearby Trenton.

There is still some manufacturing in Batawa. The old Bata engineering facility is occupied by auto parts maker Linamar Corp. But the plant, called Invar, is operating far below its capacity as it tries to drum up new business in auto parts and nuclear power components.

"These are tough times," said Linda Hasenfratz, president of Linamar, which is based in Guelph. Linamar just won a $200-million-a-year contract to provide parts to an unnamed European car company. But that won't help Invar. The work will be done in Germany, which, Ms. Hasenfratz pointed out, is hardly a low-wage country. The key to manufacturing, she said, is innovation in products and processes.

If Mrs. Bata has her way, Ms. Hasenfratz will just have to look over the fence in Batawa to see it happening. Demolition should start this summer on low-rise areas of the Bata factory site, clearing the way for serious work on the core building. At 82, Mrs. Bata is impatient to move ahead with new and prospective partners. "The factory is a bit of a symbol here. We have to get that done."

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