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An Ontario success story, Oshawa bounces back from factory losses

Oshawa Mayor John Henry stands in front of a General Motors mural in the Ontario city.

Mark Blinch/The Globe and Mail

The conversation veers frequently into big plans for the future when John Henry, mayor of Oshawa, talks about the city he's been leading for seven years.

Mr. Henry, who was born and raised in the Ontario city, just east of Toronto, rhymes off a few of these plans: a new mixed-used neighbourhood development that will include about 2,200 residential units, a $6-million project to upgrade the city's airport, a second station on the province's regional GO train network, and major renovations to expand and modernize the existing station.

"We're an exciting place to be," says Mr. Henry. "For the longest time we were looked at as this city outside Toronto that makes cars, but we're much more than that."

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After decades of building its economy – and reputation – primarily as a production hub for General Motors of Canada Co., Oshawa today is no longer the manufacturing powerhouse it once was. Total manufacturing employment in Oshawa has been declining since the late 1980s, says Alan Arcand, associate director at the Conference Board of Canada's Centre for Municipal Studies in Ottawa.

"In 1988, manufacturing accounted for 30 per cent of total employment, compared to less than 10 per cent today," he says. "The decline has been quite significant since 2006, when there were 32,000 people employed in manufacturing in Oshawa; now there's only about 20,000."

Yet even as its manufacturing sector shrank, Oshawa over the past two decades has distinguished itself as one of the fastest growing cities in Canada. Its population has swelled by 20,000 residents to an estimated 170,000 since 2011, and the city's businesses and government offices provide employment to almost 60,000 workers, with 18,000 of these jobs created just last year.

What's behind this growth? Mr. Arcand sums up Oshawa's success story in two words: economic diversification.

"That's the big takeaway from Oshawa," he says. "While it's still home to GM, the economy has become less concentrated in manufacturing and now includes a more diversified cross section of sectors."

Of the city's key employment areas – which range from advanced manufacturing and energy generation to information technology and transportation – Mr. Arcand points to health care and education as the most compelling examples of how Oshawa has prospered by putting its eggs in different baskets.

Employment in health care and education in Oshawa has nearly doubled since 2000, to 42,000 from 22,000, he says.

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The growth of these two sectors can be attributed in large part to partnerships between the city's Lakeridge Health hospital and more than 80 universities and colleges. The opening in 2002 of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology in Oshawa has also contributed significantly to the growth of the city's education sector, and to its overall economy, says Mr. Arcand.

Lakeridge Health is home to the Lakeridge Health Education and Research Network, a 25,000-square-foot facility that trains health-care practitioners and students from schools such as the University of Toronto and Queen's University in Kingston. Lakeridge also uses this space for research and clinical trials.

"This facility represents a $7-million investment," says Len Kleine, senior director of business development at Lakeridge Health.

He points to one of the training centre's top features: a state-of-the-art simulation lab with mannequins that can be programmed to exhibit various diseases. These life-sized models, which can be examined with tools such as an ultrasound machine, are also designed to respond to treatment.

To get to where it is today, Oshawa has had to send out clear signals that it's open for business, says Mayor Henry. About five years ago – after Oshawa succeeded in pushing through the construction of a new Costco store in only 16 months – city officials decided to rethink the way they dealt with businesses.

"We said, 'We can change the way we do business so that we can better meet the needs of companies that are in Oshawa or that are thinking of coming to Oshawa,'" says Mr. Henry.

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The city adopted a customer service approach that sees every call to city hall tagged with an identification number and tracked through to its final outcome. The city also extended its service hours, opening from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. during the week and from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays.

"Customer service is essential to doing business," says Mr. Henry. "The treatment that companies get here is different from what they would get in other municipalities."

Paul Church, president and owner of Cleeve Technology Inc., agrees. Mr. Church, whose company supplies electrical and harness assemblies for the aerospace and defence industries, says that after 20 years in Oshawa, he knows he's in a sweet spot for business.

The mayor's office and city hall have been responsive to his company's requests, says Mr. Church, and have even helped him line up an investor in a recently acquired business, which has developed laser technology to remove paint from aircraft in an environmentally friendly way.

Mr. Church says being in Oshawa has also made it easy for his company to find the talent it needs in the area, and getting to and from the city is relatively painless, thanks to amenities such as the city airport and GO train service.

He says he's now looking to invest $20-million toward a "technology park" that will house Cleeve Technology and at least five other companies in the high-tech sector.

"When I mention that we're in Oshawa, some people almost turn up their nose," says Mr. Church. "I think it's one of the country's best kept secrets, and one part of me hopes it stays that way."

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