We are fast approaching the Peterborough municipal election, which occurs on October 22. An election is not just a changing of the guard in leadership. It is also an ideal time to start a conversation about the kind of city, and the kind of future, we want to build. There are many challenges facing this city right now, many ideas about directions the city could go, and many opportunities to build towards those futures.
Recently, we have been speaking to local community organizers, thought-leaders, advocates, activists, and citizens about their visions for the Future of Peterborough. We will be publishing these interviews over the next weeks and months, and encouraging you, our readers and the citizens of Peterborough, to have your say.
Paul Bennett is helping to re-shape the city. As co-owner of Ashburnham Realty, he has been involved in some construction and renovation projects that have embraced modern design and planning practices, and through that, he’s become more and more involved in community projects. He’s co-founder of entrepreneurship hub Venture North, and recently became chair of the board of the DBIA.
What do you believe are the most important issues facing Peterborough right now?
Obviously I might be a bit biased, but I do think that the strength of a city is the strength of the downtown. I take that a bit further: the strength of the downtown is highly impacted by the residential density in and around the downtown. That reflects on the real need for residential issues in our community.
From what’s on the planning books right now, I think things in terms of subdivisions are pretty good. There’s a bit of a supply issue right, but I think over the next few years the supply is coming. Both from an affordable housing situation, and the kind of market where 50+ people are trying to get rid of their homes and downsize to have a more active lifestyle.
I do think a lot of things can be solved through planning, through proper community development. Obviously you have to link in social issues and stuff like that, but I think the way you tackle a lot of those social issues is through your community planning process. We could sit here and talk about 50 other issues that are obviously affecting our community, but the biggest thing we can do (or at least that I can do, and the city can do too), is to set the table to allow our city to grow in the right way.
What are you seeing in the community you’d like to see more of?
Entrepreneurship and business growth. And freelancing. To me, the next wave of entrepreneurship is freelancing, where people are working on their own, working with numerous businesses. For me it allows the creative economy to get on steroids and work in different areas.
Peterborough provides a lifestyle that many communities can’t. I have another meeting after this, but after that, if it’s still sunny I’ll go for a kayak. It’s pretty awesome to be able to do that, and not have to jump in a car for an hour and a half first. If I can be a 20-year-old and go to a community where I can have that lifestyle and start a business, or be part of a business that’s growing, I’m going to grow my roots here and start my family here. I think it’s just the tip of the iceberg as to what we can do in that world. In the next five years, the community is going to have all the services and lifestyle attributes that anyone would want to have—from a young adult to a family. You can have a continuum in the same community, which is pretty awesome.
For the number of years I’ve worked with the Venture North project, it’s been a ton of fun, and eye-opening, and we’re working on a second phase to that: a kind of landing pad area, where as businesses grow, they have a place to grow to—further incubation.
I’ve also grown to be a very big art fan. I think I follow passion a lot, and I don’t know if I’ve ever seen more passion. Entrepreneurs and artists, they’re kind of one of the same. I once asked [local artist] Alex Bierk what he was doing this weekend, and he said to me, “I’m an artist; I don’t have weekends.” I’m really excited to hopefully put together an arts hub. And I’m working on something with the One Roof guys that I’m really excited about.
I know these are all hubs, but the idea of shared services, of finding efficiencies, solving problems, as opposed to everyone being in their own silos. To better serve the client: to better serve the entrepreneur, to better serve the artist, to better serve the marginalized.
What is your ideal vision for the future of Peterborough?
My mind is very much on what you can physically do to a city, ’cause to me, physical changes allow everything else to follow. The old thing: build it and they will come.
I’ve used the city of Nashville [as an example] numerous times, not because I want Peterborough to be an entertainment capital, but because I feel they did an awesome job in planning and creating their city, where they kept all their heritage on the main drag. It’s very entertainment-based, very fun-based, and we’re never going to be that, nor do we want to be—but then they did such a beautiful job of not allowing any buildings above a certain height in that area, they kept a really beautiful main street or two, and then they allowed all the stuff to grow in and around that.
I would love to see the ‘donut’ around our downtown core develop a lot more. People really want to grow in those areas: in East City, in the near West End, around Little Lake. And those people function to populate our city and make it really active, liveable, and fun. Having active communities resolves a lot of issues in terms of planning. It gives a lot of options for affordable housing, creating hubs where people can have shared services.
What do you believe we need to do to get there?
This is going to sound like a really bad answer, but I think we’re on the right track. In my time in Peterborough, there’s been some changeover in the people who are in charge in certain areas, and I think the right people are in place to start directing the ship to get our city to where it needs to go. Some of that has to do with the Official Plan, some of it has to do with working to create the right relationships.
We can always improve on certain things. There is a real need to focus on arts and heritage. Gentrification sometimes causes a real problem, but Peterborough, unlike a lot of areas, hasn’t screwed up yet. We’ve been so slow that we haven’t had the opportunity to fail, if that makes sense. Our ignorance, in this case, may save us.
But it’s also a good warning, because there are cities like Barrie that got hit with a population growth, and they weren’t ready for it. Their city became really piecemeal, and they’ve got a lot of problems because of it.
We’re never going to attract another GE, so we need a long-term vision for starting, incubating, and growing businesses. It isn’t going to come to fruition in two years; it’s going to come to fruition in 20 years. That’s a struggle with political cycles, but I think our city has to commit to it.
How could the people of Peterborough help to accomplish this?
I’ve always said that the power of Peterborough is the people here. In my personal opinion, the citizens are doing everything they can to improve their community, but—no disrespect—the plate wasn’t set for Peterborough.
I just don’t think our community was set up for success, where I think now it’s getting that way. We had a very old-school mindset in the way we grew, the way we attracted businesses, how we ran businesses. Now that’s changing, and hopefully that allows everyone to go on doing what they’re good at. But if you’re doing what you’re good at in a place that isn’t set up for you to be good at it, it’s really challenging.
To me, everything is positive. If we had this conversation five years ago, I might have been a bit more “we have to do this, or that,” while I think now a lot of things are rolling in the right direction.
We can chip away at telling the stories, like this one, of Another Peterborough on our own but we could really use your financial support.
If you would like to see more stories like this please consider funding us on Patreon.