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Councillor Greg Beros spearheaded a campaign to get the city, which recently surpasses its Statistics

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Richmond Hill has held many claims to fame: hometown of premier-designate Kathleen Wynne, childhood home of Farley Mowat, Canada's rose capital – and Ontario's biggest town. That last title might not last for long, though.

This spring, residents will decide if the municipality of 188,000 should hold onto its quaint town status or join the big leagues and become a city.

There's more at stake than just a change of name. "Town," "city" – each carries a set of associations that can change how a place thinks of itself, and how, in turn, it believes it is perceived by others.

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In December, Richmond Hill councillor Greg Beros introduced a motion in council to change his municipality's status. "In my mind we are in every way a city except by name," he says.

As he sees it, the shift will lend their growth ambitions greater credibility. The town's most recent official plan, drafted in 2009-2010, calls for greater density at Yonge and Highway 7. The town has requested money from both the provincial and federal government to build a subway line. "These are city-type requests. These aren't things little towns ask for."

With a growing reputation in overseas markets, it's time for a change, he says.

But not everyone feels that Richmond Hill is a natural fit for city status. Mayor Dave Barrow feels that upsizing, even just in name, has negative impacts, too.

"The sense of community is what I sense that you lose," he says.

In the similarly populated Town of Oakville (home to multiple businesses that spell "old" with an "e"), the olde-fashioned mayor says he wants to preserve the village feel of his home.

The question of "city" v. "town" is largely a metaphysical one.

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The pro-town lobby say keeping the label nurtures a sense of neighbourliness and can compel the community to protect heritage sites and place limits on density.

City-status advocates say a simple name change can open the door to foreign investment and encourage a sense of sophistication – Markham recently made the shift to "city" following a trip to India, where they felt their "town" designation held them back.

Richmond Hill town staff are in the midst of pulling together a report on the costs of making the change to "city," which will be presented in March and followed by a public consultation. The cost, all sides say, should be minimal. (most signage simply says "Richmond Hill" on it rather than "Town of Richmond Hill").

While Richmond Hill's mayor says the municipality will act on residents' wishes, ultimately council will make the final decision. In Ontario, changing status is at the full discretion of local government, with no regard for population. (The province of Manitoba, by contrast, grants city status to any place with a population of 7,500 or higher – shout-out to the newly minted City of Morden, home of the Corn and Apple Festival, which reported a population of 7,812 in the last census). There are no official advantages or disadvantages as far as the province sees it – it's just considered a name change.

So what will it be, Richmond Hill? Are you a quaint suburb in the shadow of a metropolis or an urban, economic engine in your own right?

The Markham Case

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For Markham, Richmond Hill's neighbour to the east that officially became a city last July, the change was mostly about marketing. The name may be but one small piece of its development strategy, but it's perceived as a key tool when delegations travel to Asia on trade missions.

Regional councillor Joe Li remembers, with some embarrassment, a mission to India in 2012, before the status change.

"People were wondering: If it's a town, is it worthwhile to do business with? In their mind, a town is, like, 20,000 to 30,000 people," he said. "When we told them it's 300,000, they said, 'Why don't you use the title "city"?'"

Research teams at York University and Frankfurt's Goethe University are in the midst of a project that examines how a municipality (in one specific case, Markham) whose growth is dependent on its big-city node (Toronto) asserts itself as its own city. In a paper presented at a conference in Paris last fall, the researchers say Markham's evolution into a city has been happening for more than two decades, regardless of its official name.

"…It changed from a rural/small-town identity to wanting to become a major player within the global city region," they wrote. "It not only changed its name from 'town' to 'city' just a few months ago, but has had developed, and followed up, an aggressive strategy for attracting multinational corporations since the 1990s."

On another trip to India last month, Mr. Li said the delegation was taken more seriously. While it was limited to dealing with the local chamber of commerce on the last trip, this time they landed meetings with chief ministers and signed memorandums of understanding with IT institutes in Pune, Mumbai and Chennai.

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Much like Markham, Richmond Hill has become a magnet for multinationals – particularly life sciences and tech firms. It's the headquarters of BMW Canada, Lexmark Canada and Trimark.

fDi Magazine, a publication owned by the Financial Times, ranked Richmond Hill fourth among its list of the top 10 small cities of the future (alongside Richmond, Virginia and Dayton, Ohio) last year.

"I know Richmond Hill is watching us carefully and they might not want to do it, but they have no choice," Mr. Li said. He sees Richmond Hill as something of a mini-Markham – an ethnically diverse municipality that may be closing itself off from opportunities for foreign investment because of its name.

But those factors haven't put pressure on Mayor Dave Barrow to make it official.

"I've been to China and it's your location, the type of residents you have, the highly skilled residents you have," he said. "I don't think the size or the name of the community attracts any more or any less activity."

The Oakville Case

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Oakville, like many GTA suburbs, defines itself in contrast to the stereotype of big-city living in Toronto: Why settle for reheating takeout in your condominium's micro-kitchen when you can enjoy a spacious detached home on a residential street? Instead of strangers in the elevator, you have neighbours. Instead of postage-stamp "parkettes," you have sprawling, manicured parks.

With a population of 182,520 as of 2011, it's the largest GTA municipality to have never debated becoming a city in council.

"It's become a matter of pride," said George Chisholm, president of the Oakville Historical Society. "People feel like there's a different feel to a town than a city. Cities are big and bad and towns are small and wonderful."

Though its population is nearing 200,000, he points to its well-maintained waterfront and preserved downtown core as markers of its "town-ness." In cities, by contrast, development has a way of either crowding those areas or letting them fall into disrepair. To Mr. Chisholm, the town's three heritage districts are an assertion of town-sized quaintness.

Population be damned: In Mayor Rob Burton's eyes, Oakville can outdo its much-smaller counterparts on the quaintness scale. To him, it feels even more close-knit than a town.

"Today, Oakville is a city that calls itself a town and acts like a village. We'll keep calling ourselves a town, because 'town' sounds warmer and friendlier than 'city,' and our warm and friendly welcome speeds newcomers to success in our community," he said in an e-mail.

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Not changing status can be a marketing strategy of its own.

After Richmond Hill's town staff report back to council on the costs of becoming a city as part of next month's budget process, they'll survey residents by phone, online and at community events to gauge public opinion and then council will vote.

While he's gunning for a majority vote in favour of becoming a city, Mr. Beros says he can't imagine the status change would turn residents of his municipality into a cold, individualistic species overnight.

"If it's your behaviour that you greet a new neighbour when they move in next door to you, now that you're called a city, you don't stop doing that," he said. "I don't think people are going to become less or more friendly because of what we call ourselves."

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