The City of Orillia, 90 miles north of Toronto on the shore of Lake Couchiching, is on the final leg of a long journey towards the revitalization of its downtown and waterfront.
Like many municipalities gifted with lake frontage, Orillia (pop. 31,000) has struggled for decades to successfully blend the competing interests of developers with its own ambition to connect the downtown with the water. It’s been a long haul. Over the past several decades, the city has seen developers come and go, along with many unfulfilled promises for improvements.
This will soon change in a tangible way.
Orillia began to carve its own redevelopment pathway when council adopted its Downtown Tomorrow Plan in 2012 followed up in 2016 with the purchase of a 9.75-acre shopping mall property near its waterfront. This has put the city in the driver’s seat.
Legal processes required to sell and redevelop the multi-acre site have been complicated by a long-term lease held by national food retail chain Metro which occupies one-third of the property.
Nevertheless, a Request for Proposal (RFP) document is expected to be released this spring. The city hopes to have RFP’s in hand in early 2021 from three pre-qualified proponents, with construction of the selected proposal underway within three to five years.
Along with a continued commitment to infrastructure and employment growth over the past decade, the city’s revitalization initiative has attracted significant investments from other developers, such as Aurora, Ont.-based Oakleigh Developments.
Family-owned Oakleigh has quietly assembled close to five acres of commercial property in the downtown core over the past six years. Oakleigh’s president, 34-year-old Geoffrey Campbell, believes Orillia represents untapped potential as a destination for GTA (greater Toronto area) refugees seeking a high quality of life.
“Orillia is a community that has heritage and character throughout the downtown — its red brick, character and charm are similar to the Distillery District in Toronto,” Campbell told the Daily Commercial News. “We see the city’s initiatives as an opportunity to develop Orillia in ways that are sensitive to that character and identity.”
Campbell’s plans are already well underway. Matchedash Lofts, a $40 million condominium and professional office complex in the heart of downtown is scheduled for occupancy this July. The block-long structure has been designed to resemble brick-clad warehouses of the past. Oakleigh’s future projects will be determined in response to the outcome of the city’s RFP process for the waterfront site.
Laura Thompson, Orillia’s real estate and commercial development manager, says the city likes what Oakleigh is up to, calling Campbell’s commitment to Orillia, “instrumental in the revitalization of the city’s core.” She believes other developers will soon recognize the opportunities available in Orillia.
The area already boasts satellite campuses for Lakehead University and Georgian College, along the OPP’s General Headquarters plus a regional office. This year, Hydro One will commence construction of a new $150 million Ontario grid control centre in the city’s rapidly-filling industrial park, creating up to 250 high-paying local jobs. Orillia’s $53 million Recreation Centre is due to open shortly.
Campbell recognizes the importance of employment growth to Oakleigh’s future success in Orillia.
In late 2019, he joined Steve Clark, Ontario’s Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, to announce the creation of a $200 million automotive research facility a few miles south of the city. Ground is expected to be broken later this year. Campbell hopes the 212-acre Oro Station Innovation Park adjacent to the Lake Simcoe Regional Airport will develop a collaborative environment for new technologies related to electric and autonomous vehicles. He believes as many as 700 full-time skilled jobs could be created over time.
Campbell and the city seem to have well-matched ambitions. “We want to help Orillia grow in a way that people are proud of,” he said.