Transit, tech sector, education key to Waterloo region growth, mayors say

Cambridge, Kitchener and Waterloo make up the second-fastest growing census metropolitan area in Canada, according to new numbers from Statistics Canada. Kitchener Mayor Berry Vrbanovic and Waterloo Mayor Dave Jaworsky say they aren't surprised.

Kitchener-Cambridge-Waterloo CMA the second fastest growing urban area in the country

Waterloo Mayor Dave Jaworsky says improving transportation to and from Toronto will be integral to Waterloo region's growth in the future. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

From transit and transportation, to the tech sector and neighbourhood development, Waterloo region's mayors say it's no surprise the area is one of the fastest growing in the country.

New numbers from Statistics Canada show Cambridge, Kitchener and Waterloo make up the second-fastest growing census metropolitan area in Canada.

Kitchener Mayor Berry Vrbanovic says the region is an "economic hotbed" for the province and the country.

"We have one of the lowest unemployment rates and one of the highest employment rates in the country. And so it is an area where you would anticipate seeing increased growth as a result of that," Vrbanovic said.

"When I talk to people, particularly those who have moved away and when they come back home to visit, they certainly talk about the growth in our tech and innovation sector. They talk about how both downtown Kitchener and uptown Waterloo, for example, have changed for the better."

Waterloo Mayor Dave Jaworsky also cited the tech industry and region's post-secondary institutions as two major sources of growth.

"We can really be thankful for all the good, new, innovative stuff that's going on here in Waterloo region," Jaworsky said.

Population surges past 600,000

Statistics Canada census data shows the area's population grew 2.6 per cent between 2017 and 2018.

There are now more than 600,000 living in the area, according to Rod Reiger, the commissioner of planning, development and legislative services for the Region of Waterloo.

"The growth has been pretty steady, very consistent over the last four or five years," Reiger said.

Just three years ago Waterloo region saw a spike in building permits, the highest in 20 years. Reiger says that spike in construction means a lot of people moving into the region's urban areas now and in the near future.

"It's a very exciting time in our history to see this kind of shift taking place, the level of development underway."

Kitchener Mayor Berry Vrbanovic says the LRT service is a tool to manage growth and limit outward development. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

Getting it right

Vrbanovic said Kitchener in particular has worked hard to maintain a "small town feeling," while continuing to grow as a community. He points to the city's neighbourhood strategy and efforts to protect the countryside line.

"As long as we can make sure that neighbourhoods grow effectively and meet the needs of our community, I think it will help us manage some of that growth going forward."

Vrbanovic said the development of light rail transit has also been key to managing growth.

"The construction of the LRT wasn't just purely for transportation purposes but, more importantly, was a planning tool to help manage our growth and see more growth happening through intensification going up, as opposed to out into suburbia and green field development," he said.

Challenges ahead

For Jaworsky, transportation continues to be a major challenge for the region, particularly train service to and from Toronto.

"We're part of the Toronto-Waterloo Region corridor, an area of six million people, and we really need all-day, two-way GO [train] service as soon as possible," Jaworsky said.

"There's a lot of businesses here that have footprints on both ends. Look at Manulife, Sunlife, Shopify — big businesses here that also have counterparts in Toronto."

Reiger said attracting labour to the region will be a challenge over the long term.

"We do know that our economy, and particularly our technology sectors and some of our advanced manufacturing sectors continue to look for skilled and highly qualified people to support the growth of their businesses," he said.