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September 17, 2012
STRATFORD, ON, Sep 17, 2012/ Troy Media/ – Typically, when people think of Stratford in Ontario, the annual Stratford Shakespeare Festival comes immediately to mind.
As it should: the Festival has created and brought to international attention some of Canada’s most famous actors and directors, and staged magnificent productions year after year.
But Stratford as a city is far more than just this festival’s host. It is a vibrant example of a community that works.
The centre of Stratford remains a business district. While the business obtained from Festival-goers certainly helps keep the many shops in operation, the traditional Main Street structure has not been allowed to deteriorate as has happened in so many other centres around Canada. Big box retail on the approach highways has not ‘done in’ the central core.
Stratford also takes care to maintain the right atmosphere downtown. By and large, chain operations are kept at bay. There is, for instance, no Starbucks – there are eight coffee houses, mostly independent (a local Ontario chain does have a foothold). Chain restaurants are, like the Tim Horton’s, kept on the outskirts of town. There is a steady turnover of merchants as tastes change, people retire and the like, but each of these local owners and operators, in turn, strengthen Stratford’s civic culture and keep its local institutions vibrant.
Communities that tie themselves to tourism alone often live two lives: one ‘in the season’ and one during the off-season. Certainly, Stratford is quieter when the Festival, the summer music festival, and the like are not on, but, unlike tourism-only places, it is not ‘dead’. With a satellite campus of the University of Waterloo focusing on digital media, acting as the support community for the surrounding rich farm belt and as the county seat of Perth County, Stratford has an economy that reaches beyond the summer and its needs.
One of the reasons the city was attractive to the University is its investment in high speed communications. Stratford, which has held on to civic, public ownership of its hydro and other utilities, used its corridors to build its high-speed fibre-based communications lines.
The local hospital, in turn, uses the lines to work with other hospitals in the area and telemedicine techniques extend the reach of specialists, providing a wider range of services locally than a town of its size could normally hope to support. Royal Bank of Canada likewise located one of its data processing facilities in Stratford, thanks to the communications links that were available. The latest organization looking to build in Stratford is Western University, both to share facilities with the University of Waterloo and to look into running joint programs offered between the two universities.
Considering that Stratford is a former rail junction which now has limited rail service, and is not on one of Ontario’s freeways, its success shows how the intelligent and sustained use of a community’s resources can create economic opportunity.
Despite being a small community – Stratford has maintained a population of around 30,000 for the past decade – the city offers a transit system as an alternative to driving. Most places in Stratford are served by public transit that makes a trip downtown a 15 minute journey, thereby removing some pressure to provide parking.
Stratford hosts an Ontario Hockey League Junior B hockey team and there is widespread participation in various sports leagues. It was also the 2010 host of the Tim Horton’s Hockey Day in Canada. A small municipal aviation field for general aviation purposes (planes carrying 15 people or less) is located just north of the city, with Canada Border Services staff available for flights coming into Stratford from outside of Canada. Shuttle services connect Stratford to Toronto’s Pearson International Airport.
Aside from the beauty of its gardens, its river walk, its delightful neighbourhoods, a real surviving Main Street-style downtown and its summer theatre and music offerings, what Stratford is is an exemplar of how a small community can thrive in today’s world. It didn’t need an expressway link, or other forms of infrastructure, to replace its former role as a rail hub. Instead, it needed to do what it’s done: capitalize on its assets (so that employers come to use them), and maintain the central business district (to make it a place worth living in).
Other small communities across Canada could learn a lot from Stratford and its success.
Troy Media Syndicated Columnist Bruce Stewart is a management consultant located in Toronto.
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