Brantford Mayor Chris Friel continues to triumph economic development as the answer to social improvement within Brantford as he starts his fifth term as Mayor.
In 1994, when Chris Friel first ran for Mayor, he was referred to as the “boy Mayor.” The then 27-year old Friel began knocking door to door as an attempt to win votes. Friel recalls knocking on the door of an 80-year old man who agreed to vote for Friel because “you (Friel) didn’t know what you can’t do.”
When Friel decided to run for election in 1994, he was a recent Masters Student graduate from the University of Waterloo. Friel wrote his final thesis on the deindustrialization of Brantford in the 1980s. Friel would go onto defeat incumbent Mayor Bob Taylor and would soon go to work on ways to redevelop the Brantford economy.
In the 1980s the Brantford economy was based on farm machinery manufacturing. However when Massey-Ferguson and White Farm Equipment went out of business thousands of people lost their jobs and Brantford’s unemployment rate reached 26 per cent by 1994. Friel’s plan for economic development started with focusing on bringing small and medium sized buildings to Brantford. Friel decided that Brantford would focus on two sectors of business, the food industry and the advanced manufacturing business.
The success of the food industry has been incredibly success for Friel and Brantford. The food industry continues to grow for Brantford. With over a thousand people employed within the industry. The food industry continues to grow for Brantford as new plants are being built to accommodate the new contracts that Brantford is being award.Friel described the effect bring new industries into Brantford had on the city. “New businesses allows for people to move up the cycle.” But for Brantford to continue moving up the ladder, Friel believed he had to start at the lowest rung on the ladder.
Friel believed that in order to successfully change the economy he had to start with education as Brantford had a high provincial dropout level. To implement change, Friel and the city of Brantford paid to build a Wilfrid Laurier University campus in the Brantford downtown core. The campus has successful rejuvenated the downtown while improving the level of education within the city as well as brining more high quality jobs to the city. Despite not receiving any provincial funding for ten years, the campus is home to over 3000 students and 20 buildings. Friel calls the “University the biggest change” in the process of emerging from deindustrialization.
In order to pay the millions needed for the university campus Friel was forced to find a new source of income for the city. The answer came from an unlikely source as the city sold a building they had acquired when Bell defaulted. Brantford sold the building for $4.1 million which the government and Ontario Lotto and Gaming Corporation turned into a casino.
The Casino has proven to be a major income generator for the city. Brantford receives five per cent of slot gross after payout. In the first year of the casino, Brantford made $4.3 million. In the past year, Brantford was able to negotiate a percentage of the casino’s poker room profits. For 2015, the city of Brantford is projected to generate its biggest profit ever of over $5 million.
As the city of Brantford has emerged from the deindustrialization, the focus has shifted from economic development to social improvements for Friel. Brantford under the leadership of Friel have launched many initiatives to improve life for citizens. The city of Brantford under Friel has seen the social assistance numbers stabilized to help the disadvantaged. Friel describes the process as “managing the problem, while looking for creative ways to solve the problem.” Friel began by targeting neighborhoods with low test scores with the idea of “breaking the cycle starting with the kids” said Friel. Smart Brantford is a focus initiated by Friel to improve inclusion within the city, including improvements at libraries and rec centers. Smart Brantford hopes to improve technology and programs to build skills for future jobs.
Friel has also launched Safe Brantford, a program designed to lower crime rate. Brantford has always had a higher than average crime rate in Ontario. But Friel hopes the multiple phase program will continue to reduce crime numbers in Brantford. Operation Shutdown is a cooperative effort made between multiple police stations across the province as well as Six Nations. However Friel admits, “Drugs are still a problem the community struggles with.”
Breaking the cycle is a major emphasis for Friel was he has been able to gather every agency to break the crime cycle of youths and get them on what he calls a “progressive path.” The question for Friel when looking at troubled youth is “how do we save this person?” The answer for Friel has started with the community. Boots on the Street is an organization that focuses on attacking problem housing complex and dealing with addiction and mental health. Friel calls housing a problem for the city as the city has nowhere to put people when they finish detox rehab allowing them to return to their bad habits. Friel calls for an improved Provincial and National housing strategy.
As Friel started his fifth term as Mayor, the biggest problem he faces is that Brantford is running out of land for both business infrastructure and residential infrastructure purposes. Friel began negotiations with Brant County in 2003 to readjust boundaries, however those talks have stall as Friel was beaten in two straight elections until Friel was reelected in 2010. The city and the county continue to negotiate.