Now a thriving city of 143,000 the City of Barrie was first the home to indigenous peoples, who used a portage from Kempenfelt Bay to the Nottawasga Bay “from time immemorial.” The British found that the portage route had a strategic use by using it to get around the American dominance of the Great Lakes during the War of 1812.. By the 1830s an actual town had begun to emerge on the western shore of Lake Simcoe. Named after Sir Robert Barrie, the town did not become a municipality until the 1950s when it annexed the neighboring Village of Allandale. In 2009, the city was designated as an urban growth center.
As the city continues to grow, Mayor Jeff Lehman and the City Council are taking a strategic approach to developing the city. Lehman says they are determined that Barrie will stand on its own as an economic center and not become yet another suburban bedroom community. To accomplish this goal, city officials are building on Barrie’s strengths, utilizing the waterfront’s appeal and the economic engines that already exist to spur continued growth in the city.
Much of the community’s development is focused on the waterfront and the historic downtown area. When the town was first built, the waterfront was a marshy wetland area at the end of Kempenfelt Bay, so buildings weren’t constructed to face it. Now, Barrie is trying to change that to capitalize on the appeal of a waterfront view. The city is also expanding parks along the water’s edge, as well as constructing up-to-date marina slips intended for short-term visitors to use. In the downtown area a bus terminal is being converted into a food market that will house both full-service restaurants and kiosks for vendors. A separate farmer’s market will operate next door. The City is also redeveloping Memorial Square to include Meridian Place, an area that will become a large performing arts venue.
The waterfront and downtown development, along with other development in Barrie, is guided by the city’s strategic plan. Job creation, fiscal responsibility, good neighborhood development, and transportation solutions are the four hallmarks of the city’s strategy.
Jobs, says Lehman, are the core of ensuring that Barrie does not become a bedroom community. Barrie has had success already in the last year. Manufacturers have been expanding or building a second plant, and medium-sized companies in particular have been adding employees. The City has also sold out it’s portfolio of industrial land in just two years’ time. Supporting entrepreneurialism, especially within the creative economy is also key to Barrie’s job growth. Their support is working – Georgian College is now building a new space for their digital marketing program in downtown Barrie.
Fiscal responsibility is a must, even as the city experiences economic growth. Lehman explains that municipalities in Canada work hard to make the most of every penny they have, and they have no other option as only 9 cents of every tax dollar in Canada makes its way to municipal coffers. Everything from libraries to public safety has to be funded with that, and to do so municipalities have no choice but to get creative. “You can’t just keep layering on new property taxes,” says Lehman. “Doing so hurts business.”
Technology has made it easier to become efficient, with tools like smart water meters allowing for the collection of water usage information without a large staff requirement. The technology also has the added benefit of providing data that allows the city to more efficiently plan for when staff and resources are needed. Targeting resources based on data is an approach that can be duplicated across all city services, helping the municipality save money and more effectively provide services.
Developing good neighborhoods means bringing more affordable housing to Barrie, as well as improving existing neighborhoods more seating opportunities for seniors, intensification of parks for resident use and creating more walking opportunities to connect neighborhoods to the downtown and waterfront . Affordable housing is an issue in Barrie, with single homes now unaffordable to many and prices that continue to rise rapidly. Though the city is already organically beginning to see the development of a broader mix of unit types, The City has brought in a planning policy that would more aggressively encourage such development. Right now, the city does offer discounts on fees to developers who build affordable housing.
As Barrie continues to grow, it’s a natural progression for transportation problems to occur. Lehman assures people that it’s not as bad as the problems faced by the Greater Toronto Area, but long-time Barrie residents are certainly noticing an increased amount of traffic and an increasing amount of frustration. Dealing with this issue is a top priority for the Barrie City Council, which already has an ambitious program of investment in highway interchanges and bridges.
In addition to the four points of the city’s strategic plan, Lehman and the City Council are also focused on sustainability issues. Lehman foresees climate change as presenting problems for the city, noting they have already seen some consequences with water mains freezing. As a lakeside community with six creeks running through the city, rainfall is a concern and they are in the process of opening up creeks – “using Mother Nature’s design,” explains Lehman – and changing the way they build culverts to help avoid flooding as well as improve the overall health of the lake. Barrie has also had success improving its wastewater treatment and reducing phosphorous levels in Lake Simcoe. Energy usage is another sustainability concern for Lehman and the City Council. The city is working with power company Alectra to invest in renewables, as well as technology like micro grids to increase resilience and provide continuous power.
With all the gains Barrie has seen and a real estate market that doesn’t look like it’s slowing down anytime soon, it’s perhaps counterintuitive that Lehman is particularly bullish about the importance of continuing to attract non-profit organizations into the city.
“My view has always been that charities and non-profits are an essential part not only of quality of life, but also for delivering services in healthcare, education, culture, and what I’d call just being good human beings,” he says. “Communities are judged by how they treat their least fortunate.” As it does with developers building affordable housing, Barrie offers discounts on fees when possible to non-profit and charity organizations both to help attract them to the area and help them remain operational. If such discounts aren’t an option, other avenues are found to help out – discounted rates for holding fundraisers in public buildings, for example.
With all of this growth going on in his city, what does Mayor Lehman think about his job?
“There’s an incredible amount happening here very quickly. Being part of that is very exciting,” he says. “We are really on the move in Barrie. We are seeing it in the real estate market, industry, the economy. We are seeing it in the number of start-ups and the pace of activity here. My job is never boring as a consequence. It’s an absolutely fascinating job to try to assist and shepherd some of this growth and development as a community.”
And, he adds, no matter how fast or how much it grows, Barrie will remain its own city with its own character.
“We see our own future. We don’t see our future as a suburb of Toronto.”