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In high-tech hub, a pair of election horse races

For as long as most Kitchener residents have been alive, the Lang Tanning Company sat silent like a sepia-toned ghost, its painted logo fading into post-industrial oblivion.

The sprawling 19th-century complex, shuttered when synthetic materials supplanted leather in the 1950s, had been the British Empire's largest supplier of shoe soles and saddles for more than 100 years.

Today, the tannery is drawing fresh breath as home to the Communitech Hub, a collaborative space colonized by high-tech giants, small start-ups and postsecondary schools. As such, it is not just an emblem of the Southwestern Ontario city's long history of reinvention and resilience, but of Canada's ever more global economic ambitions.

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The tannery's façade tells the story in simple, graphic terms. High on the yellow-brick wall, above the painted Lang logo, is the multi-coloured crest of the world's best-known Internet company: Google.

It is no accident that Stephen Woodworth, the one-term Conservative MP for Kitchener Centre, has rented an office in the tannery complex as his campaign headquarters for the May 2 election. No politician here can afford to ignore the region's $18-billion-a-year tech sector, or the historic ethos of co-operation that has seen the area's economy evolve from leather, boots and buttons to binary code and BlackBerrys.

"The unique thing I've found about this community is the collaborative nature of business, government, the not-for-profit sector and the education sector," said John Doherty, a litigation lawyer who chairs the Prosperity Council of Waterloo Region.

"Maybe that's reflected in the politics as well; it doesn't seem to be as highly partisan a political atmosphere in this community as you might find in others," Mr. Doherty said.

The tannery is the latest signal of the digital economy's expansion into Kitchener Centre - a blue-collar riding buffeted by the decline in traditional manufacturing - from its much wealthier neighbour, the riding of Kitchener-Waterloo, home to global tech giant Research In Motion and the University of Waterloo.

The ability of local leaders to keep driving this evolution could foretell much of Ontario's economic future. This, and the extremely close election results of 2008, make the two ridings ones to watch. In Kitchener Centre, Liberal Karen Redman lost to Mr. Woodworth by 339 votes, while her colleague Andrew Telegdi fell by a slim 17 votes to Conservative Peter Braid in the country's closest contest.

The fact that Ms. Redman and Mr. Telegdi - who had served as MPs for 11 and 15 years respectively - have returned to run again suggests that the Liberals saw their defeat as more of a blip than a rebuke. Rather than turn out en masse to vote the incumbents down, thousands of voters simply stayed home, according to results that showed a 10-per-cent drop in ballots cast in the two ridings.

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"Clearly, the Conservatives got their vote out," Ms. Redman said during an early-morning visit to the Kitchener Farmers Market before a long Saturday of canvassing. She and Mr. Telegdi have made themselves more visible in this campaign.

Their Conservative rivals, meanwhile, have assiduously avoided what Ms. Redman called the "toxic" partisanship of Ottawa - a wise move in a region where rancour and recrimination tend to ring hollow.

"If you ever watch me in Parliament, you'll notice that I rarely, if ever, heckle when somebody else is speaking," Mr. Woodworth said after a rally in Kitchener for Conservative Leader Stephen Harper last week. "That's just me, and I suppose maybe it's because I was born and raised in Waterloo Region; I don't know, but to me, Parliament is a sacred place."

Ms. Redman and Mr. Woodworth, separately and without prompting, both quoted David Johnston, the Governor-General and former University of Waterloo president, who often touted the region's "barn-raising" ethos as the product of its Mennonite farming heritage.

The two main parties' similar deference to the area's co-operative culture - evident in their support for its universities and college, its rapid-transit ambitions, and the large-scale philanthropy of tech titans such as Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie of Research In Motion - could partly explain the neck-and-neck nature of the Kitchener Centre and Kitchener-Waterloo races. Political scientists at Waterloo's Wilfrid Laurier University deemed both ridings as "leaning Conservative" at the campaign's outset, but revised their opinion to "too close to call" after a tough first week for Mr. Harper.

Less close, and perhaps less visible, is the gap between the fortunes of the ridings' residents, despite their geographical proximity and invisible shared boundary. A scant few blocks from the airy, exposed-brick confines of the tannery, a humbler kind of hub called the Working Centre helps people find meaningful employment.

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A rising tide might lift all boats, but it can also toss people overboard, as Joe Mancini has seen time and again through 29 years of increasing traffic at his grassroots agency.

"The story of the Working Centre has been the story of the [growth of the] contingent labour force," Mr. Mancini said, referring to the gradual replacement of full-time work with temporary, lower-paid positions. The region's enviable 6.7 per cent unemployment rate, third-lowest in Ontario, shows its resilience since the 2008 recession, but masks the fact that up to 30 per cent of those employed lack a permanent job or a living wage, he said.

While the area's 500 tech companies and more than 200 start-ups have 2,000-plus job openings for skilled positions, the Working Centre has an even higher number of clients looking to earn a living any way they can. "They're not the same people," Mr. Mancini said of these two sets of workers. "The tech sector has different values and skill sets, and society is not just about technology," but needs people to perform basic tasks.

Between these two worlds, Tamara Minns sits in her small business on King Street in downtown Kitchener, wondering how much longer she can wait for the rising tide to dampen her door.

Ms. Minns's shop, RareFunk, is a young urbanist's paradise of quirky items hand-made by local artists. It is a short walk from the tannery, the University of Waterloo's new pharmacy school, Wilfrid Laurier University's social work faculty, Kitchener City Hall and a massive loft-conversion condo in the former Kaufman Footwear factory.

And yet no one seems to be spending, despite reports of economic recovery.

"This has been, for me, the worst January-February-March since I've opened," said Ms. Minns, who started her business three years ago, but still works two other part-time jobs to get by. "There's just nobody around, and when they are around, they're [just]looking."

Ms. Minns, 37, hasn't had time to pay much attention to the campaign thus far, but neither had the local candidates visited her shop. If they ever do, she'll likely tell them how little she can further afford to lose.

"I hope the result [of the election]is that our economy gets back on track, and quickly," she said, "and that the jobs for the commoners are out there, and available."

Kitchener Centre

Total population: 107, 540 (2006)

Electors: 79, 062 (2011)

2008 Results:

Conservative (Stephen Woodworth): 16,480, or 36.68 per cent

Liberal (Karen Redman): 16,141, or 35.98 per cent

NDP (Oz Cole-Arnal): 8,152, or 18.14 per cent


Total population: 126,742 (2006)

Electors: 97,511 (2011)

2008 Results:

Conservative (Peter Braid): 21,830, or 36.06 per cent

Liberal (Andrew Telegdi): 21,813, or 36.03 per cent

NDP (Cindy Jacobsen): 8,915, or 14.72 per cent

Source: Statistics Canada - Federal election district profile based on 2006 census

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