Waterloo Region Industrial Redevelopment

I’ve now worked in the high-tech industry in Waterloo Region for over fifteen years now. I’ve worked for companies that were small, and just starting out, to some of the larger tech companies in the region, as well as the world.

Waterloo region used to have a strong industrial base, but over the years, manufacturing has moved overseas. With this shift in manufacturing, some unique properties have gone into disuse.

Among the redeveloped builds that I’ve had the opportunity to work in include 72 Victoria St, which started renovations back in 2000, 151 Charles Street, also known as the Tannery, and now 51 Breithaupt St, also known as the Breithaupt Block.

Instead of the sterile drywall and ceiling tiles in other office buildings, these buildings all featured open beam and brick construction. The character and history of the building are open to view. There is something very comforting about being able to look up to see the structure of wooden beam rafters above me, or to see a wall of old brick.

A brick wall in the Breithaupt Block building in Waterloo region
A brick wall in the Breithaupt Block building in Kitchener. It’s unique. Not every “brick in the wall” is the same. They have a character that more modern buildings cover up.

It’s interesting to see how the region has grown over the past twenty years, and how the downturn in manufacturing has changed to a rise in information technology companies. Looking at the construction of the LRT in the region, it’s easy to get annoyed at the traffic problems it’s causing. Getting from one side of King Street to the other side isn’t as easy today as it was before the construction started.

There are still derelict buildings in the downtown core, and others, such as the Mayfair Hotel, which have been torn down due to structural integrity problems. Some of these buildings, such as the Rumpel Felt building (constructed in 1913, with additions in 1942, 1961, and 1968) have been vacant for nearly a decade. The Rumpel Felt building closed in 2007.

A view of the Rumpel Felt building, a brick industrial building in downtown Kitchener
The Rumpel Felt building is a now vacant industrial building in downtown Kitchener

Others, like the MacIntosh Dry Cleaners, have closed more recently, within the past year.

The Macintosh Dry Cleaners was a family run dry cleaning business operating in Kitchener since 1934 for 81 years, but has closed in 2015 due to lack of business.

The fundamental dynamics of the region have changed. While we are no longer an industrial city, we still have a strong industrial heritage. Redevelopment plans don’t need to include tearing down these older buildings. Redevelopment of existing buildings maintains a connection to the history of the region, as well as providing a creative place to work.

This has been a successful strategy as well, with the tech hub at Communitech, the University of Waterloo’s Velocity incubator, and a number of great startups like Vidyard, and D2L in the region.

The High Tech Job Sector in Waterloo Region

As dire as news coming from Research in Motion is these days, Waterloo Region has a large number of technology companies actively hiring. We’re really fortunate to have such a variety of local companies here in the Region, and the support of Communitech.

Tech Leadership Conference 2012
Photo from Communitech Photos flickr page

Communitech also has a tech jobs website, http://www.waterlootechjobs.com. This past month, I attended the Waterloo TechVibe Recruitment Event, where a number of local companies were recruiting. How did that work out? After the event, I was in different stages of the interview process with six companies, before accepting a position at Desire2Learn.

I was really impressed by the variety and quality of companies we have in Waterloo Region. We are far more than just the headquarters of RIM. From radiology workflow solutions at Medicalis, to financial account management at Arius Software, to cross-platform mobile voice solutions such as Fongo, the market is definitely hopping.

While it’s true that when people think of Waterloo Region technology companies, RIM is often the first company that comes to mind, there are also local Google offices, as well as OpenText.

While many companies in the region are in the mobile space, such as Kik and enflick, we also have good representation in the medical and financial services fields.

So while the wind may be out of the sails at RIM, the economic outlook for Waterloo Region is still very good, as noted in a recent article in the Waterloo Region Record on a report by the Conference Board of Canada. Will job cuts at RIM hurt? Without a doubt. But the benefit is a more diverse region, where smaller companies are not struggling to find the talent that in the past several years has been going to RIM.

Waterloo Region also has great support for technology startups. Communitech has their Hyperdrive program, Waterloo has the Accelerator Centre, and the University of Waterloo has a Velocity incubator. All of these programs offer entrepreneurs with space and access to established mentors, to help build their businesses. While these don’t provide large employment numbers now, they do provide opportunities for those in the region.

 

Supporting Local in a Global Marketplace

While listening to 570 News the other day, one of the hosts of “Your Money Matters” assured the audience that although he likes Apple stock, that he wears a BlackBerry on his hip.

I know that I’m not the only person in Waterloo Region with an iPhone, and there are a number of folks with Android devices as well. After all, Google has a local presence here as well.

The fact remains that there appears to be a blind devotion to supporting Research in Motion’s handheld devices, without a critical comparison to competitors. “BlackBerrys have a physical keyboard” is one quick defense, with the strong implication that a touch screen device is useless for typing. Guess what? This post was typed entirely on my iPhone.

Before someone suggests that I don’t know enough about BlackBerry, let me assure you that I do. During my four and a half years working there, I used the Pearl, Bold, Storm, Torch, and all the variants. I even used a Pearl Flip for awhile. Some were better than others, but when it was time to leave RIM, I didn’t hesitate, and bought an iPhone.

I’m not suggesting that everyone should buy an iPhone, but rather that they should acknowledge that they may not have the best, most competitive device. In fact, they should realize that this blind devotion to RIM, and lack of local criticism may in fact have contributed to the lack of true innovation in the last several years.

While I understand the desire to support local businesses, the lack of critical dialogue in the community makes things seem like a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes. I think we need members of the community to be critical of local businesses which are attempting to compete globally. It leaves the perception of being a market leader, where outside the region, the ship has long since sailed.

This increased isolation from competitive devices has no doubt affected RIM staff as well. How many developers at RIM have had much experience using an iPhone or Android? How many know areas in which one is better than another?

Now I’m sure that their situation is abundantly clear by now. The new CEO does not have rose colored glasses. Other recent departures on the executive hopefully reveal a shift in vision, to address the challenges facing them today.

We in Waterloo Region have benefited from RIM’s past success. Does this require seemingly sycophantic praise for their current devices? While I wish my former coworkers the best of luck in the current transition to BlackBerry 10, I can only hope that their new devices meet the demands of the wider international market, and not just those of Waterloo Region.

We should also remember that as a corporation, RIM’s first duty is to its shareholders. The corporation doesn’t “owe” the community anything, outside any possible contracts with the municipalities. However unlikely it may seem, some high level deal could see RIM walk away from the region, to set up shop elsewhere. Don’t think that could happen? Just ask the folks in Salo, Finland, about ailing Nokia. While I don’t see this happening, RIM has significant investment in the region, it is within the realm of possibilities, especially if RIM enters certain partnerships or is otherwise acquired.

What do you think? Am I missing something here? Is there a reason to praise the current BlackBerrys? Does the Be Bold marketing campaign mean anything to you? Should I cut RIM a little more slack as they negotiate their transition to a new platform, or do you, like me, hope that people stop trying to defend their mobile choices by saying that they are “supporting the local guy”?

Waterloo Region Transit

After the recent municipal elections, the Region of Waterloo’s transit plans are scheduled for review. After all, Rob Ford is cancelling Light Rail in Toronto. We should do the same here. </sarcasm>

I don’t believe that anyone is really suggesting that we should stop our light rail plans because of anything Toronto is saying or doing. A large part of the controversy appears to be due to the funding from the provincial government, which was less than expected. With the remaining expenses to be carried by the Region, local residents are crying foul, especially those in Cambridge, who would be getting rapid bus transit while Kitchener and Waterloo would get to ride the shiny new rails.

The alternative now being reconsidered, is rapid bus transit for all three cities. Those backing this plan suggest that ridership levels will be insufficient to support light rail, and that increased bus transit is more flexible. While it may be true that ridership will need to grow, I remain doubtful that rapid buses would have the desired effect of building up the city core.

An important question is how either project will affect transit through the rest of the cities. Rapid light rail is obviously limited to the central core. It can not be rerouted, although in the future additional lines could be built. What we can help for is the bus lines to be rerouted to feed into the central rail spine. Ideally, a bus will also go near my home, instead of a half hour walk away. I have doubts about the ability of rapid buses to alter the bus lines. Without the increase in urban densities, will rapid buses be able to build ridership fast enough to outpace traffic densities?

Waterloo Region Transit

Last month, there was a little commuter challenge in the Waterloo Region, in which Kitchener Mayor Carl Zehr, Waterloo Mayor Brenda Halloran, and 570 News announcer Mike Farwell traveled by Hybrid car, bus transit, and bicycle between Waterloo Town Square and Cambridge City Hall, where they were met by Cambridge Mayor Doug Craig. The results were mostly unsurprising. Transit by car is clearly the fastest, completing the journey in 33 minutes. The trip by bus completed in just under an hour. What did surprise me was that the cyclist arrived only fifteen minutes after the bus.

With the recent announcement by the federal government, promising up to $265 million dollars for the regional rapid transit plan, involving rapid light rail, I think it’s worthwhile mentioning that some areas of Waterloo Region don’t have bus service at all. When I attempt to use Grand River Transit’s trip finder to plan a trip, entering my location can’t even find me a bus that goes nearby. Using Google Maps, I find out that the nearest bus route is a half-hour walk from my house. I’m inside Kitchener city limits, and this walk would be along developed streets. It’s not like I’m walking through the woods to Grandma’s house here.

The remainder of the route would still take another hour to an hour and a quarter to complete a trip to the University of Waterloo, near where I work. I can complete the drive in under a half hour, less than the time required to walk to the nearest bus stop. Waterloo Region council can talk all they want about how awesome the rapid light rail will be, and how it will encourage higher density development along the core of the region, but until a bus route comes near my neighbourhood, I won’t be using it. Waterloo Region is still very much an automobile oriented community, and tossing money at light rail is not going to be the quick fix that some members of the community is suggesting.

What the rapid light rail plans can provide is a fast central corridor, which will supposedly build up the core of the cities. The city then needs to work on bus lines that link up to the rapid light rail line as quickly as possible. If a bus could get me from my neighbourhood to the light rail in a reasonable amount of time, the regional transit system could then start to become competitive, at least in my mind.