Three Big Ideas for Peterborough

I’ve had three big ideas for Peterborough for a while –  industries that I think could & should be pursued by my hometown, the city with the highest unemployment rate in Canada. Below, I briefly outline why I think they’d fit our town, and what one issue I think needs to be overcome before they can move forward.

With the film industry a powerful part of Toronto’s economy, Peterborough has already been host to several film crews, and has lots to offer: friendly, cheap, and close to Toronto, we’ve got well-preserved heritage neighbourhoods which could fairly easily be dressed to look like many different eras.  We’ve got all the parking ((If you think that we don’t have enough parking in Peterborough, feel free to stop reading right now.)) a film crew could ask for, and a great downtown so that crews and cast alike could kick back after a long day and enjoy themselves.  A 15-minute drive from downtown takes you into cottage and farm country, and with several in-town industrial spaces sitting empty, we’ve got buildings to re-purpose as sound stages and storage. In particular, the Armoury will one day be decommissioned, and this would be a great use of an otherwise unwieldy space.

The problem is one of resources – right now, we’ve got a lot to offer, but we don’t have industry-specific resources, like caterers that can do Craft Services on the scale necessary, or specialized equipment or space rentals available.  If the City ((When I capitalize ‘City,’ I’m talking about the municipal entity, not the physical city.)) could work with some production companies to begin developing the necessary resources, Peterborough could become Little Hollywood North, to the benefit of all local industries.

Great branding by Studio N!Portland, Oregon is a mecca for young entrepreneurs, and for good reason.  It boasts a great youth culture that includes lots of terrific craft breweries, restaurants, a great music and culture scene, bike and pedestrian-friendly neighbourhoods, and loads of tech startups. Except for that last point, it sounds like Peterborough. Coupled with a relatively cheap market for real estate, ((2019 Update: this is clearly no longer the case)) abundant parking, ((Seriously, it is so easy to park in this city.)) and all of the advantages of small-city living while having easy access to major urban centres and a strong cultural identity, the success of Portland could be duplicated here. A wonderfully walkable, bikeable city with a foodie scene unrivaled by other small towns in Ontario, Peterborough’s nightlife is strong, young, and accessible.  Tech startups need space, but can convert an old factory, a heritage home, or the third floor of a downtown shop to suit their purpose – they don’t need purpose-built spaces.

The problem is one of perception – outside of the city, few know that it’s anything other than a retirement destination or a place to drive through on the way to the cottage.  The lack of marketing to younger entrepreneurs means that no fresh blood or ideas are brought in, and no new opportunities are created.  If the City can find a way to attract tech startups, those will help support the revitalization of heritage neighbourhoods, strengthen cultural and green industries, and help to intensify activity in the core of the city, reducing maintenance on roads and other municipal systems on the edges.To both support and promote local startups and attract new ones would benefit the whole community.

Peterborough’s music scene is gaining a reputation across Canada and around the world as a hotbed of talent from all genres.  From Country to Calypso, Funk to Folk, the music scene offers a wide variety of high-quality music almost unheard of in such a small city.  Looking to Austin, Texas as an example, Peterborough is beginning to move towards capitalizing on this abundant local resource, beginning to recognize both the economic impact and the economic potential that music has for the city.

The problem is one of recognition – our community doesn’t seem to know how good they’ve got it.  Though the establishment of Music Peterborough  ((2019 Update: sadly defunct, but a really visionary idea that could still work.)) is a good sign, they need the City to get behind the movement, and for that to happen, the community needs to start taking pride in the incredible talent on display nightly in bars and cafes downtown. There is a real possibility that Peterborough could become a destination, not just for music tourists, but also for musicians interested in rehearsing, recording, and learning in a friendly and fun city.

GE building - Candace ShawThe Big Problem
Maybe none of these would work; maybe all of them would.  But it’s time for the City of Peterborough to engage in some big-picture thinking; instead of adding 30 jobs here and 20 there, let’s add opportunities for whole industries that will positively impact the whole community.

The big problem, of course, is that local political leadership ((2019 Update: we’ve seen some real, positive change in the makeup of City Council, but they’re still saddled with trying to fix many of the problems created or exacerbated by their predecessors.)) is disengaged with the broader community, under-educated about economics and urban planning, and under-informed about the vast human resources and areas for growth in the city itself. Compounding that is an old-school boys club mentality, a distinct level of underlying bigotry, and a political cowardice which is visible in all of Peterborough’s elected officials. ((2019 Update: Again, there’s been some positive change since I wrote this article in 2013.))

Peterborough doesn’t have to be a poverty-stricken backwater with no opportunities for growth; indeed, it seems that our elected officials have had to work pretty hard at keeping the City’s assets from developing into real and lasting prosperity.  From shooting down progressive initiatives ((Too many to name.)) to killing off some of the City’s best assets ((PCVS, for example.)) to ensuring that the City’s own rules can be flouted by developers, ((A cowboy Mayor and some weak-spined Councillors bend over backwards for Shoppers Drug Mart, a store that has done nothing but leave useless abandoned retail spaces in its wake all over the city.)) elected officials seem determined to not only drive out people of my generation but ensure that there’s no reason or opportunity for us to ever return to the city we love.


  • Hodge

    Great article! I often wonder why I didn’t move on from ptbo to the city when I finished my degree… But then i remeber that i absolutely LOVE it here… Despite obvious flaws surrounding employment.
    Your article provides some viable solutions to real issues, and also highlights the complete and utter nonsense we as residents endure from city hall. This town has so much potential, we just need someone to run for mayor that will have to courage to bring about positive change.
    I hear you make things happen… Any interest? ;)

  • Wyatt Lamoureux

    Well said and to the point. City leaders seem too interested in maintaining their own status quo than seeing the opportunity and resiliency the city has to offer us all.

  • Marc Bilz

    Candace – thank you for the wonderful article. Goddamn you are right on. What we really need is to step up to the plate and nudge these baby boomer old farts off the podiums from which they stand around and do nothing but support status quo and watch as we lose critical pieces of what makes this city wonderful: PCVS being one example and now the threat to Jackson Park being another. I am definitely NOT including those forward thinking, wonderful, former (?) hippies that add to everything Peterborough from ReFrame to the blues festival. This group, unlike their listless brethren, are vibrant, active (and fun to party with) and would, no doubt support the initiatives you suggest. Let’s keep this discussion alive. I especially share your vision of Peterborough as a centre for film.

  • Ingrid Halls

    Sure sounds good to me!! Sounds better than artificial turf and a casino. And where is our ingenious GPEADC?

  • Jonathan

    Point no.1 about film production is a little tricky, in my opinion, but probably doable although even Toronto has suffered from the strong Loonie. Point no.3 is definitely correct.

    Point no. 2 though is the one I’d like to address. As someone who works in a tech startup, I can tell you that you are missing one key thing that everyone in this industry needs: Engineers. All tech hubs (SIlicon Valley, NYC, Toronto, Tel Aviv, Kitchener-Waterloo, London UK etc) have at least 2 high quality engineering schools nearby. Further to that, Peterborough is not ‘wonderfully walkable’ and if you live anywhere outside the downtown you will probably need a car. Turning an old building into another ‘tech hub’ as some cities have tried to do is great, but where are the engineers going to come from? Where is the Venture Capital going to come from?

    Older engineers with a few years experience and families to support might fancy the natural surroundings and low cost of living, but they would likely be looking for consolidated jobs without the risk and longer hours that come from working in a startup.

  • Rick

    I’m an advocate for bringing fibre to Ptbo along the lines of what happened with Kansas and Austin, TX (and this just in: Provo UT).

    We’re racing to build a bridge over the park for future growth…. or waiting for the 407 to connect Orono with the GTA…. but can you even imagine what fiber (or, in the case of Google, FREE fiber) could do to a local creative economy?

    The film business is a tough one to crack, but the post-production world I can see because that’s what I do on a very small scale, right in the heart of the Kawarthas.

    New developments from this year’s NAB conference demonstrated real live working Adobe Anywhere allowing content developers to work anywhere in the world with media stored ‘somewhere else’.

    This is just ONE use of always-on gigibit fiber.

    Having a research-friendly university and artist-friendly college in town makes Ptbo the Next Big Thing but it needs cheap/free and reliable fiber to connect it all.

    Too bad the campaign for Google fiber was limited to the US. The people in Ptbo I do business with and interact with are perfect candidates for this kind of runway.

    Thanks for posting this. This post along with recent developments at NAB got me thinking again about this.

  • Rick

    … and I never even addressed the tech side of the equation. I agree with you 100% and think we’re closer to realizing this than we may think. Again, gigabit fiber would be a huge catalyst.

    But we need an anchor tenant if you will that brings a few young minds together in a sustainable business.

    I’ve often wondered about the video game business, but I’m thinking outloud again and probably shouldn’t play my cards publicly just yet. ;)

    Oh, and I overlooked you mentioning Austin! Home of Google Fiber #2. Coincidence? I think not. Great minds are indeed thinking alike.

  • Rick

    I just wanted to point out one thing in the likely event that Google fiber comes to Canada requiring city council to pitch a winning bid… the cities of Austin, Kansas, etc get FREE gigabit internet for all citizens as long as they install a high speed modem. Here are the details.

    But not just anyone gets this gift of unimaginable infrastructure. The city has to create an award winning pitch. Something I guess along the lines of the team that brought a casino to town… but with 100% community buy-in.

    Can you imagine?!? Of course the answer to that, Candace, is that people like you actually . :)

  • Jen

    Wonderfully written, and I completely agree. I grew up with you on the outskirts of Peterborough and I too love our city. I would love to have your ideas implemented, instead of the crazy casino and parkway talks… I agree – Shaw for Mayor :) I’d vote for you!

  • Annie

    My fantasy is that after a year or two in the Big Smoke learning some new chops and getting even more connected, our Candace will come home with a new job as head of some large music or film organization and help turn Peterborough into a major international music/film hub. I have no doubt she could do it.

    Digital animation is another growing field that only needs good bandwidth.

  • Bill Templeman

    Good on you, Candace. yes, we lack engineers and local venture capital is hard to come by, but what we lack most of all is significant political will. City council seems to be locked in the 80’s, pursuing jobs, when most of the exciting work is to be found in careers and entrepreneurship. The arts are particularly effective at creating employment and opportunity.

  • Cheryl Ellis

    Hi Candace. I love your three big ideas for Peterborough! You are so brave and so right! Congratulations for speaking your truth. And thank you. I recently read “The Rise of the Creative Class” by Dr. Richard Florida and I think it should be required reading for all of our city government leaders!!! Love, love, love you, Candace! Please don’t stay away too long…

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