When you have the best seat in the house in one of Canada's best cities you're the best kind of power broker

August 15, 2017
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Keith Hoey worked in the engineering departments at Union Gas and Dofasco for decades before he took up one of the best seats in the Bay Area: President of the Burlington Chamber of Commerce. He holds the reins of the President’s office with his signature smile and the authentic welcome that comes from truly loving the city you’re championing. 

Keith has a bird’s eye view of Burlington that makes him the man to talk to when it comes to innovation in a city that consistently ranks among the top five places to live in Canada. We spoke to Keith in the Chamber offices and heard a story with a common thread: This is a man who’s excited not only about business in his city, he’s excited about how art is starting to blur the hard lines between north and south. 

The trick to being a popular Chamber President who’s described as a hardworking, collaborative, funny senior statesman? It could come down to hosting the black tie Gala Business Awards  wearing a red baseball hat while running a mock election campaign for President of the United States of Burlington. 

Keith’s tongue in cheek persona kept his audience laughing while he delivered a serious message: Business in Burlington is innovating, growing and having a great time along the way.

Talk to me about Burlington and innovation from your seat as President of the Chamber of Commerce.

There’s a lot of innovation going on with individual organizations and in the city itself. A highlight is what’s happening with the reorganization of our Economic Development department.

What’s happening there?

Up until about a year and a half ago, the Economic Development department was focused on running events. Events made up a large part of their retention strategy. Within economic development, there wasn’t a focus on attracting new companies or helping small and mid-sized companies grow.  It was actually the Chamber of Commerce that convinced City Council to change the Burlington Economic Development Corporation (BEDC) model. I’m really proud of that work. It took us about four years. We actually won an award from the Canadian Chamber of Commerce for the work we did to advocate and convince the Council to change the BEDC model.

And now moving forward?

Economic Development in Burlington is now strongly focused on attracting new companies and on growth, and also on actively helping small to mid-sized companies organically grow here in town. That’s really exciting stuff, it’s a different approach to what has happened in the city and at the BEDC in the past. Change is here. The Economic Development team is in the design phase, carving out what the new mandate looks like and exactly how it will be approached.

Give us an on-the-ground example of the work you're doing with businesses.

There’s a company in town that is looking to make extensive capital investments in growth. They need it to happen very quickly and they’re looking to the Chamber, the BEDC and the City to help them do that. It’s good for the whole city when existing businesses can more easily grow.

What does the Burlington business landscape look like right now in terms of sectors?

There’s four clusters in Burlington: Financial Services, Advance Manufacturing, Fabricated Metals and Software Development. The other cluster that isn’t traditionally on the list, but is currently growing, is Water Treatment Technology. I know the BEDC is focusing on water treatment technology as an area of growth, attracting more companies in that vertical because like follows like.

So Burlington’s doors are open wide?

Burlington has a very diverse business community. We are not a one-horse town. I think that’s one of the reasons we felt the downturn back in 2009 but not as deeply as other communities did.

Where would you like to see Burlington go from an innovation point of view? Where do you see the most growth and excitement?

I interview a lot of business leaders, and the sector that has impressed me the most in the last year is manufacturing in general. They are doing very well. Everybody is talking about the death of manufacturing and the loss of manufacturing jobs, but you still have to make stuff.

Stuff is what makes the world go around.

How we make stuff might vary from business to business, but it still needs to be made. I would say 90 per cent of the manufacturers I’ve spoken to in the last 14 months are in growth mode, which is pretty amazing. When I think about the manufacturing sector I get excited for the economy.  

Talk to us about the city next door, Hamilton. Are you innovating together?

Our biggest joint venture in terms of innovation is the Bay Area Economic Summit. Last year it was hosted by the Hamilton and Burlington Chambers of Commerce together. From that Summit we’ve seen our cities start working more closely together. Burlington and Hamilton are sending their managers and department heads away for training together, which is pretty cool. Organizations that span the Bay and the bridge are also working together.

What does "working together" look like?

We hosted a women’s leadership networking event for Hamilton and Burlington. That’s a fresh approach to city building – it’s adding a regional perspective that’s new. That feels pretty innovative from where I sit. There are spin-offs, too. We’re working on a “look back” where we say to members, “Here are the things that have happened just last year and they’re a result of you guys being in the same room.” Our plan is to present the findings at this year’s Bay Area Economic Summit. 

As you know, this Issue of Influence is focused on the Bay Area. How are the two cities alike?

I find the mentality of business 1people in Burlington and Hamilton to be very similar. Burlington is in a funny spot. We are technically part of the GTA. But the business mindset is more closely aligned with Hamilton than it is with, say, Oakville, Toronto and Mississauga. That’s just anecdotal. I have no data to back that up, but that’s the sense I get when I talk to people in Hamilton and Burlington. I worked at Dofasco for ten years and Union Gas in Burlington, so I have a fairly good sense, I think, of the two communities.

Talk to me about Burlington and innovation from your seat as President of the Chamber of Commerce.

There’s a lot of innovation going on with individual organizations and in the city itself. A highlight is what’s happening with the reorganization of our Economic Development department.

What’s happening there?

Up until about a year and a half ago, the Economic Development department was focused on running events. Events made up a large part of their retention strategy. Within development, there wasn’t a focus on attracting new companies or helping small and mid-sized companies grow.  It was actually the Chamber of Commerce that convinced City Council to change the Burlington Economic Development Corporation (BEDC) model. I’m really proud of that work. It took us about four years. We actually won an award from the Canadian Chamber of Commerce for the work we did to advocate and convince the Council to change the BEDC model.

And now moving forward?

Economic Development in Burlington is now strongly focused on attracting new companies and on growth, and also on actively helping small to mid-sized companies organically grow here in town. That’s really exciting stuff, it’s a different approach to what has happened in the city and at the BEDC in the past. Change is here. The Economic Development team is in the design phase, carving out what the new mandate looks like and exactly how it will be approached.

Give us an on-the-ground example of the work you're doing with businesses.

There’s a company in town that is looking to make extensive capital investments in growth. They need it to happen very quickly and they’re looking to the Chamber, the BEDC and the City to help them do that. It’s good for the whole city when existing businesses can more easily grow.

What does the Burlington business landscape look like right now in terms of sectors?

There’s four clusters in Burlington: Financial Services, Advance Manufacturing, Fabricated Metals and Software Development. The other cluster that isn’t traditionally on the list, but is currently growing, is Water Treatment Technology. I know the BEDC is focusing on water treatment technology as an area of growth, attracting more companies in that vertical because like follows like.

What do you see happening with your waterfront and how has that created an attitude that Burlington is a world class community?

I would extend it beyond the waterfront and include downtown Burlington, which has developed very, very nicely in the past ten years. And what makes me say that is, it’s just nice to walk around. There are very deep setbacks from the roadway, so instead of just sidewalks, we’ve got sidewalks and cafés all over the place. It’s very easy to get down to the lakefront, the Spencer Smith Park area, with the restaurant and the playground activities. It’s very walkable and there’s a lot of different types of shops in downtown Burlington.

Did this all happen organically or was there a master plan?

I think Burlington was very innovative years ago when they laid out the plan for downtown and the park area. It’s a bit of an outlier because in Canada we generally don’t do a great job of developing our waterfronts. In the States, they do. Pittsburg is a great example. It used to be a steel town – now it’s a steel technology town. They’ve developed the waterfront beautifully.

So the difference in Burlington 20 years ago and now?

Twenty years ago they used to say you could fire a cannon down Brant Street at eight o’clock on a Friday night and not hurt anyone. Now there’s people walking around, enjoying themselves. They’re going to the shops, to the restaurants and to the Performing Arts Centre downtown.

Speaking of downtown, I hear through the grapevine that the Art Gallery of Burlington is doing something really innovative.

The Art Gallery of Burlington is a bit of a hidden gem. Robert Steven, the executive director, has a very innovative approach. He’s taking the Art Gallery to the community instead of having the community come to the Art Gallery. They’ve planned events where pieces from the Art Gallery of Burlington are moved to community gathering places. Just recently they set up a gallery at the Holiday Inn. They invited people to the open event, offering wine and cheese while watching the artists create. They’re doing it at Tansley Woods Retirement community too.

I love that!

Bringing the art to the people instead of making people come to the art. I give them a lot of points for that.

I’ve heard you talk about the great divide in Burlington, how's the Art Gallery of Burlington factor in?

There seems to be this mental boundary in Burlington about north of the highway and south of the highway. The Gallery lives south of the highway and they’re taking it on the road to neighbourhoods north of the highway, which I think is a very innovative thing to do.

You said the Art Gallery of Burlington is a hidden gem. What will we find there? 

The Gallery is a much bigger building than you think it is. All of the guilds are in the back corner, taking up almost half the building. If you’re not an artist, you’d never see those spaces. Their guilds are a very active part of what the Art Gallery is all about. It’s not people like you and me going to see paintings and the pottery. Art is being made there.

Burlington has only so much space. At what point will it simply have to put up the “Lot full” sign?

There’s not a lot of space left to grow out in Burlington. That’s why one area where we must innovate is around intensification. As more people move to the community we simply can’t grow out. What we must do is grow up, vertically. The concept of intensification, how we intensify and where we intensify, will be the challenge moving forward. You have to do it the right way.

What’s the right way?

The approach the city is taking, and the Chamber supports this, is around developing Mobility Hubs. Those are essentially the Go Stations. Let's look at Aldershot. There’s a plan to develop retail, residential and commercial around that hub. There you'll have easy access to the Go Train for the commute to Toronto and you'll be able to shop within walking distance to home and stroll over to Plains Road, which is developing fabulously.

Final thoughts on innovation?

Innovative thinking is what needs to happen to ensure we make the city better. And I think it will. We’re doing the right things to make it happen.

For more information visit:http://www.burlingtonchamber.com/

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