Inside The Burlington Economic Development-Tourism Burlington Merger: Paving the Way for Ambitious Project

On March 19, the Burlington Economic Development (BED) organization announced a merger with fellow city-focused entity Tourism Burlington, and a day later let the public know about an upcoming development partnership at 1200 King Rd. which will be a big project for the newly-merged organizations.

BED works as a “non-profit, private-public partnership,” according to the Burlington Downtown website, and Tourism Burlington works as an independent non-profit, with the City of Burlington as a major funder and with a city council representative on the board.

Burlington’s Mayor Marianne Meed Ward made the separation of the groups from the city clear.

“Both organizations are independent of the city,” Meed Ward said. “They're not departments of the city. They do get a grant from us, but it is their own boards that have initiated this. So, this hasn't come from City Hall, this has come from the boards where they have seen an opportunity to partner together to advance the interests of tourism as well as the interest of economic development.”

City Council voted unanimously to approve the merger, which will take place by the end of the year.

Kelvin Galbraith, Ward 1 councillor and chair of the board of directors at Tourism Burlington, said that the idea of the merger came about following the COVID pandemic, which gutted the tourism industry for the duration of the crisis.

“Many of the board members had left and there was kind of a sense of renewal, with some new board members,” Galbraith said.

He also spoke about the “Municipal Accommodation Tax” (MAT) that was passed during COVID, which is a 4% surcharge on any hotel and motel rooms in the city that goes to tourism services and infrastructure in Burlington.

“So now we have this large funding that we're building, and we had a real inexperienced board at tourism that was in charge of it,” Galbraith said.

“We had a lot of pressure from the hotel industry that was collecting it [saying] ‘How are you going to spend this? What are you going to do with it,’” Galbraith said. “We really were looking for some guidance at tourism and in speaking with the management of the city [we] discovered that several other municipalities had merged their economic development and tourism functions into one.”

Paul Sharman, Ward 5 councillor and member of the board of directors at Burlington Economic Development, spoke about the amount of money that has been raised so far through MAT.

“Right now, we've got about $2 million that is available as a result of last year’s money collected,” Sharman said. “So that just becomes something that requires a bit more management attention. And doing it in the context of economic development is how we chose to do that.”

Galbraith said that by merging the organizations, the city could not only save on expenses but also share the expertise that both groups have and work towards the same goal.

“They already have finance staff and good leadership in a strong sort of economically-focused board, which we're finding has a lot of similarities to tourism,” Galbraith said.

Galbraith said the groups are almost fully merged and have hired a consultant to work out the finer details of the move.

He also spoke about the differences in expertise between the two groups but said that the organizations are more alike than different.

“They [Burlington Economic Development] were traditionally focused on anything that brings jobs, investment... But [if] you just sort of open that up a little bit, it can easily include tourism,” Galbraith said. “So, they didn't have the expertise in tourism, but we're finding with just a little tweak here and there, sharing some governance, in terms of the boards and some of the staff members, it really does make a whole lot of sense.”

Meed Ward agreed with Galbraith on his assessment of the similarities between the two groups.

“At a strategic level, tourism is economic development. And economic development, really, in a broad sense, is about selling the city to people inside and outside of it,” Meed Ward said. “So, really there's a lot of synergy between tourism and economic development.”

Anita Cassidy, the executive director of Burlington Economic Development, agreed about the shared interests of the two organizations.

“There's this real opportunity to take economic development practices around business growth, support, and business attraction support and really translate those into a tourism sector,” Cassidy said.

Galbraith also spoke about how the merger will cut down on red tape.

“Now we don't need 10 board members per organization,” Galbraith said. “We can have 12 for one organization.”

Sharman said the city will only gain from the merger.

“We won't lose anything that we were doing before, but what we will be doing is adding a dimension to it,” Sharman said.

One day after the merger was announced, City Council also approved what they are calling a new “economic vision” for 1200 King Rd.

The “vision” is being spearheaded by a few different groups working together, including Burlington Economic Development and the Burlington Lands Partnership who are partnering with Alinea Properties, one of the major developers in the city.

Cassidy explained that Alinea owns the majority of greenfield sites that are left in Burlington, including 1200 King Rd.

She also said that despite numerous constraints from a development perspective, including those stemming from CN, Metrolinx, the Ministry of Transportation, and environmental concerns, 1200 King Rd is still a “prime site.”

“That's one of our last employment sites,” Cassidy said. “And it was converted by the province last year into a mixed-use site.”

Previously 1200 King Rd. was designated as an employment site; now it is also able to be developed for residential and commercial purposes.

Galbraith, in whose ward 1200 King Rd. is located, elaborated further on the potential of the site.

“It's a very unique parcel of land, in that there's only one landowner and we're not dealing with multiple blocks of different landowners that may be trying to assemble and build something,” Galbraith said.

He also said the development will help decrease traffic in the surrounding areas.

“This can add that additional linkage between King Road and Waterdown Road, which can alleviate some of the through traffic that uses Plains Road.”

Cassidy also said that one of the criteria for any development plans on the property is that it creates 1500 jobs.

But Cassidy said it isn’t just about creating jobs but making sure people want to work there.

“It's about all of those quality-of-life components that are going to drive employees to come back into the office and have the experience of 1200 King, including having accessible daycare as part of that, restaurants, and businesses that they can shop at,” Cassidy said.

Sharman estimates that the city will gain 20,000 new residents and 15,000 new jobs as part of the development.

One of the major parts of the planned development is an ice rink twin pad that could also accommodate concerts and other large-scale events, with a capacity of 5000 seats and up to 7000 people including standing room. Galbraith said the “community complex” could be part city-owned and part private.

Also in the works is a post-secondary campus for a yet-unnamed college or university. Sharman mentioned Mohawk College, but Galbraith said the exact school is still under wraps.

When talking about how the project will bring amenities to people in the area, Sharman brought up the new housing that the development plan could bring.

“Relatively attainable housing. The word ‘attainable’ means it's still going to be pricey, but more attainable for the majority of people,” Sharman said.

Meed Ward echoed the need for more attainable housing during the current cost-of-living crisis.

“We know we’re in a housing crisis,” Meed Ward said. “We have to build more housing units. We know most of those will go around our GO stations, but we don't want to just build housing units. We have to build places where people want to live with a high quality of life, with access to jobs, services, community facilities, and, of course, housing, parks, and trails.”

“So, the King Road site is really an opportunity to show what that would look like and really be the template for everything that we continue to do around all of our three GO stations as we're facing this housing crisis,” Ward continued.

According to BED, the merger will be complete by the end of the year, while there is currently no date set for the completion of the King Rd. project.

Jack Brittle, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Burlington