Mount Dennis, the scrappy working-class neighbourhood in Toronto's west end, has never been a looker. But it was functional: It grew up around a Kodak factory that was built near Eglinton Avenue and Black Creek Drive during the First World War, and its inhabitants worked there or in other local factories.
When the digital revolution came, though, more was lost than just Kodachrome. In 2005, the Kodak plant was razed and hundreds of manufacturing and office jobs vanished, while crime jumped. (Last year, nearby Weston ranked 10th-highest in assaults out of 140 Toronto neighbourhoods.) The city has designated the area a "priority neighbourhood."
Over the past two years, though, residents have noticed cranes, pile drivers and hoardings cropping up around Mount Dennis. Metrolinx, the provincial transit agency, has a series of major projects on the go. Some locals see this as a potential boon to the area, but the road to a thriving job market is not so smooth.
Marabelle McTavish, a retired schoolteacher, has lived in a leafy neighbourhood just south of the Kodak lands for 15 years. She has watched the area grow ever needier, with more residents at "loose ends." A few weeks back, she attended the funeral of a recent homicide victim, a young man who had been involved with a local cooking program that got cancelled because of budget cuts. "These deaths seem to be getting youth who are working very hard to get out of the influence of the drug world," Ms. McTavish said.
To counter the decline, she helped to create the Mount Dennis Weston Network (MDWN), a community group that poses a provocative question about the transit-related construction: Will all these multimillion-dollar works projects bring jobs and economic development to her neighbourhood?
Metrolinx is building the Pearson-Union Air Rail Link along tracks that run parallel to the area's crooked spine, Weston Road. Its crews are also digging a vast staging area for the boring machines that will tunnel the Eglinton Crosstown LRT. A sprawling storage and maintenance facility for the light-rail vehicles will be built on the Kodak site within a few years. The transit agency says the Georgetown South corridor expansion and the ARL project will create 10,000 jobs, while the Eglinton Crosstown, Finch and Sheppard LRTs will add thousands more.
Local politicians are quick to agree that such projects should, in theory, create local jobs, especially in hardscrabble areas such as Weston-Mount Dennis. Laura Albanese, Liberal MPP for York South-Weston, said the provincial government is "very interested" in leveraging these transit projects to bolster her community. "Having said that," she added, "it's how you go about it."
The MDWN is pushing Metrolinx to deliver concrete benefits. It has put together a proposal urging the agency to negotiate a community benefits agreement (CBA) that guarantees jobs and other spinoffs, such as a work force training strategy, an innovations "incubator" and improved streetscapes, as part of the redevelopment of the Kodak lands.
The group also wants to see part of the lands transformed into a cluster of new green businesses rather than merely big-box stores, said MDWN co-chair Rick Ciccarelli, a former Toronto planner who is a researcher with the Labour Education Centre. "We've got to see … kids in school recognize that there's a future in this community."
Senior Metrolinx officials met last month with the MDNW to discuss its proposal, although no decisions have been made. Jamie Robinson, director of community relations, said the agency is working with the city and canvassing the community to connect job-seekers to professional, construction and administrative positions associated with these transportation contracts.
Earlier this fall, in fact, Metrolinx and the city opened a Weston community office next to a muddy job site on the rail corridor. Its mandate: to provide employment counselling for local residents, perhaps even allowing them to tap into jobs associated with the works projects.
On a foggy morning this week, Wendy Whiteley dropped by the office – a construction trailer – for some practical advice about her résumé. A retired educational assistant, she wasn't sure whether the trailer – which is open only one morning a week – will help matters. "If [Metrolinx is] trying to expand, they need to come up with job opportunities for people in the area," she said. "Myself, I haven't heard of anyone who lives in the area who has gained from all this."
The city unveiled a comprehensive work force development strategy this month, but it includes no reference to community benefits agreements. According to Heather MacVicar, Toronto's general manager of employment and social services, the city is trying to encourage developers to hire locally. "We haven't said, 'You must have X number of local people,'" she said. "It's 'please consider locally based [hiring] and we will work with you.'"
Mr. Ciccarelli notes that CBAs have worked in many jurisdictions, including California, New York and Scotland. In the run-up to the 2010 Winter Olympics, Vancouver and the builder of the athletes' village complex negotiated an agreement with a network of organizations serving poor downtown neighbourhoods, producing 120 jobs and $42-million in additional revenue for inner-city firms.
In Toronto, however, Regent Park is the only such example. Toronto Community Housing worked with the developer and new retailers to deliver 255 jobs to residents, and found jobs for 314 others through a new employment office. The Pan Am Games organizers have struck no such deal with Toronto's downtown low-income communities, even though the project will create an estimated 5,200 jobs.
Metrolinx is also adopting a voluntary approach with the multimillion-dollar LRT construction contracts that will be put out to tender next summer, although Mr. Robinson noted that the agency is working with Eglinton BIA boards to develop a "Shop Eglinton" campaign to help mitigate lost retail traffic.
But the MDWN activists fear that such pledges will do little to ease social problems.
"You need to listen to your constituents," Ms. McTavish replied when asked what she would say to officials tasked with spending billions on projects that will dramatically alter the face of the city. "The core point of the exercise is to put economic strength back into the community."