Some call it cutting red tape, but developer Geoff Campbell calls it creating a better-balanced area.
Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Steve Clark was joined last week by Barrie-Springwater-Oro-Medonte MPP Doug Downey to announce Ontario's role in unlocking vacant industrial land in Oro-Medonte that would see an Automotive Innovation Park built at the site across the street from the Lake Simcoe Regional Airport.
The minister referred to the move as “cutting red tape.”
“I’m not a huge fan of that phrase,” Geoff Campbell, managing partner of Oakleigh Developments, said with a laugh. “I think a lot of people associate ‘red tape’ with rules and cutting through the rules, but it’s not. It’s about bureaucratic layers, in the sense that there are policies put in place that just don’t make sense.
“We’re not breaking the rules. We’re trying to align the policies to be able to create something that otherwise wasn’t possible because of what was in the policy document,” he said.
Oakleigh Developments is known in the area primarily for overseeing residential projects in Orillia, including the $40-million Matchedash Lofts condo projects.
The Automotive Innovation Park project marks the company’s first foray into an industrial employment project, and Campbell says the intention is to give local people who buy his condos a local place to work as well to reduce the need for commuting.
“We’re city building. So we’re not just looking at this as just building a condo, and repeating it. We’re looking at, what’s the best mix to create a vibrant downtown?” said Campbell. “You can’t just build residences non-stop. What about the young people who need jobs? It’s important for people to be able to find success in the region that creates a better-balanced area.
“We’re looking at the broader community, always,” he added.
Campbell says the concept of the park is one he’s been working on for more than a decade. He said he has looked at other sites province-wide, but when he found the 212-acre property across the street from the Lake Simcoe Regional Airport on Line 7 in Oro-Medonte Township, it ticked all the boxes.
“This site was the perfect site, which is why we pursued it,” he said.
The only snag was that it had been zoned industrial employment land, but for aviation-related employment only.
However, in December 2018 after negotiating, Campbell decided to purchase it hoping he could get the zoning amended.
“Typically with developers, they won’t take the leap of faith. Financially, it can be an incredibly risky move,” he said. “While we were doing due diligence with the land, we were also working with stakeholders, manufacturers and government trying to find out how they would receive it. We took that leap of faith, but that’s how much we believed in it.”
Campbell said he knew the land was zoned specifically to be tied to airport use, but with the small amount of industrial land available overall in Oro-Medonte, he thought it was worth taking the chance.
When the airport released its strategic plan this year, Campbell saw their plan didn’t encompass the property he had purchased.
“People wanted to come here, but no one was allowed because of that designation on that land,” he said. “The airport is already more than 600 acres. They have a lot of development land. For aircraft-related use, they always need to (have those facilities) right beside the runway.
“You can’t service a plane by driving it across the road,” Campbell added.
In regards to “red tape,” Campbell said he did foresee some difficulty in getting the land rezoned, especially since specially designated land such as the property on Line 7 is uncommon in Ontario.
“We knew we had support (locally) because we had gone through Oro-Medonte and Simcoe County council, and they both voted in support unanimously for the project,” said Campbell, adding that automotive manufacturers have also expressed interest but the project is not yet at a point where they can be identified publicly.
“The province saw the benefit of this, and saw the support that came from everyone else and subsequently decided to move it forward,” said Campbell. “We had an employment area that is critical to the region and we need to be able to use it. In its current form, it was unusable.”
Campbell’s vision for the park is to help put Ontario on the map in regards to innovation.
“We’ve been known for being big in the automotive sector, but we don’t have anything that’s focusing on innovation,” said Campbell. “You hear about Uber coming out with autonomous cars, but it’s happening in California. When you hear about electric fuel cells, it’s in Nevada and Tesla. It’s not Ontario. This facility will be designed to become a research and innovation hub for the automotive sector.”
Now that the zoning has been changed, Campbell says it’s full steam ahead on site plan engineering for the land, and his company will be working with interested parties on finalizing their plans.
“They know it’s real now. So now, they’re committing staff, they’re committing dollars, and they’re planning how many square feet they need,” said Campbell. “So those (conversations) are what we’ll be working on over the winter months.”
He says he’d like to see construction start on the land in the spring 2020, at which time they will likely also be able to announce the names of the partners and business moving to the site. Due to the sheer size of the park – more than 700,000 square feet of buildings are planned – Campbell says the construction will likely be completed in phases.
While Downey says Oakleigh had been going through the proper process all along to get the approvals they needed, the red tape was creating a barrier to the project proceeding further.
“It may have cost us, as a province, the loss of the opportunity,” said the MPP. “Almost every project has red tape, it’s just a matter of whether it’s achieving its purpose or not. In this case, the purpose wasn’t to exclude automotive... it was just significantly too restrictive.”
This order marks five amendments granted by the minister since the Progressive Conservative government has taken office. Downey says three of the five amendments were granted in Simcoe County, including one at Burl’s Creek in Oro-Medonte and another in Innisfil.
Downey also clarifies that while last Friday’s announcement is purely about this specific project receiving a zoning order, there are plans in the works to make legislative changes to prevent these types of issues at a legislative level going forward.
“We’re looking at both. Our minister is looking for systemic red tape, and as an MPP, I’m looking for specific instances of red tape in addition to that,” he said.
The Planning Act authorizes the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing to make zoning orders for regulating the use of land and the location, use, height, size and spacing of buildings and structures.
Now that his project is officially planned to move ahead, Campbell says he’s hopeful about what the future will bring to the area.
“I’m very passionate about the automotive world. There have been times where I’ve thought I should have gone that route for a career,” he said with a laugh. “I’m very excited.
"While we can’t disclose everything yet, we know the stuff we’ve been working on is going to have a significant impact in this region," Campbell added. "One of the problems with Simcoe County is a lot of people commute south for work. That quality of life is something people have been missing here for many years.
“The more opportunities there are to put employment in Simcoe County, it continues to improve the quality of life in Simcoe County."