Mississauga mayor Hazel McCallion

Located 30 minutes from the centre of Toronto, Mississauga’s economic development could easily be based on the spill-over effect of the neighbouring major Canadian business hub. Alternatively, it could simply position itself as a comfortable suburb of the largest city in the country. That it has settled for neither of these is in large part due to Mississauga’s mayor, Hazel McCallion, whose no-nonsense politics and stamina have gained her the nickname 'Hurricane Hazel'.

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Currently she devotes a lot of her energy to international travels and facilitating new business ties for the city. “This was not always the case. I had to build the city first,” says Ms McCallion, half-jokingly. Under her 34-year tenure, Mississauga has become Canada’s sixth largest municipality, growing from a population of 200,000 people to more than 700,000 and attracting more than 60 Fortune 500 companies to open their global or Canadian offices there.

“Events such as MIPIM [the international real estate conference] definitely help to attract even more businesses to our city. I think more mayors should be internationally involved in economic development. We have to have our names up front, we have to be out there,” she says. And Ms McCallion, who at the age of 91 holds the title of the world’s oldest mayor, spends so much time on the road that she could easily gain another title: that of the world’s most well-travelled mayor.

However, she is fully aware that attracting new business is a challenge. “It cannot be expected that participation in such events [as MIPIM] will bring results tomorrow, or next week. Sometimes it takes years, but nurturing relationships is the best way to get things done,” she says. Nevertheless, the impact of her trips is visible immediately. “In September 2011 I visited Brazil. Representatives of one company told me that they had never seen a mayor visiting them, they have never met even their own mayor, and here I come: a mayor of a city in Ontario, Canada,” she says.

Apart from her venture to South America, Ms McCallion is targeting Europe, the US and Asia as the source for new investments into Mississauga. “At MIPIM we are taking the opportunity to talk to our potential European partners. This year I will also be going to the biotech conference in Boston, and for two trade missions to China,” she says.

While keeping herself busy, Ms McCallion is also preparing the ground for her successor, as she is planning to retire in 2014. Stepping down after nine terms in office may not be easy, but she declares no interest to seek re-election for the 10th time. “When I say I will do something, I do it. So my retirement is a done deal. I can only hope that my successor will continue my international engagement in development matters,” she says.

Brockville mayor David L Henderson

Brockville, a Canadian city 35 times smaller than Mississauga, also has ambitions to internationalise its operations, and along with a growing number of businesses, increase its size. But Brockville’s mayor is conscious of not allowing growth to spoil the city’s natural beauty, which it uses as a marketing tool.

“Imagine, you leave your office and you see that,” says David L Henderson, mayor of Brockville, pointing at the wall-size picture of a sunset over Buells Creek Reservoir, which is hanging at the Ontario stand at the MIPIM conference. Among those who can enjoy the commute to work through the biosphere reserve are the employees of 3M, Shell Canada, Procter & Gamble and pharmaceutical company Trillium Canada.

However, not all is rosy in Brockville’s economic development. In 2012 the city will see the loss of 150 jobs as Abbott Laboratories, a global health care company, is planning to close its local plant due to the change in consumer demand. Nonetheless, Mr Henderson remains upbeat. “Apart from being a beautiful place to work, we have it all. We are located right on the border with the US, we are sitting on the main highways, rail lines and waterways, and Ottawa, our country’s capital, is located less than an hour's drive from us,” he says.

As for the new businesses Mr Henderson is seeking to attract to Brockville, he sees his city’s future in developing existing sectors, such as pharmaceuticals, consumer products and chemicals. Due to the city’s location, Mr Henderson also says that the focus in the coming years will be in developing processing and distribution facilities. “We are developing those sectors pretty heavily. Given that our transport links are excellent, I do not see it any other way,” he says.

Nipigon mayor Richard Harvey

Although most Canadians are familiar with Lake Nipigon – the largest lake located entirely within the border of the Ontario province – the small township of Nipigon, located in north-west Ontario, is less well known. And when it made headlines five years ago it was because the Multiply Forest Products mill, the main employer in Nipigon, completely burned down shortly after a modernisation plan for the site was announced.

“Our industry was overly reliant on forestry. I knew that we had to diversify our local economy, but I thought we would have 10 or 15 years for that. However, events took a turn at a much faster pace,” recalls Richard Harvey, mayor of Nipigon. “Our main mill burned down two months after I started my first term; at some point the unemployment rate in our region was somewhere between 50% and 75%,” he adds.

The township leader did not have time to prepare a response for a worst-case scenario, as it was unfolding in front of his eyes. Mr Harvey decided that in order to face the problem, he had to face the local residents. “I was out and about. I would speak to anyone that was willing to listen about our perspectives and ideas on how to change our situation,” he says.

In 2008, Nipigon’s strategic plan for economic development was implemented, with the objective of developing eco-tourism and high-value-added paper products as the pivotal points of the new strategy for the township. The new, highly advanced industries are picking up rapidly as well. “Within the range of 100 kilometres from Nipigon we have cancer research and gene sequencing centres,” says Mr Harvey, while stating that investments in the region this time around should be both sustainable and in a variety of sectors.

Smiths Falls mayor Dennis W Staples

The eastern Ontario town of Smiths Falls may have only 9000 residents, but it clearly has ambitions to be considered as an investment heavyweight. The town plans to do this by partnering with other big cities around the world. In 2010, Smiths Falls signed a partnership agreement with Xiangyang, a Chinese city with a population of 5.82 million. Dennis W Staples, mayor of Smiths Falls, believes that co-operation with Xiangyang will result in something more than regular courtesy visits from the city’s authorities. “We are exploring the possibility of signing a number of memoranda in fields such as tourism and manufacturing,” he says.

This push for internationalisation is the city’s response to falling victim to globalisation. In 2008, the Hershey Company, North America’s largest chocolate manufacturer, closed its plant in the area and relocated operations to Mexico. “We are trying to get these jobs back. And we are fully aware that we are competing on the world stage,” says Mr Staples.

While highlighting new local infrastructure projects either recently finished or currently under construction, Mr Staples nearly loses his breath and concludes by saying: “In the past four to five years we invested a lot in our basic infrastructure in order to recreate jobs that were lost.”

Mr Staples, who has been in office for the past 18 years, says that events such as Hersheys leaving the town add to his passion for the region’s economic development. “We look at these kinds of situations as opportunities, not obstacles. It is time to find new solutions and introduce changes. That is how the community over here thinks and operates,” he says.

Whitby mayor Pat Perkins

Whitby is located less than an hour away from Toronto, but according to Pat Perkins, Whitby’s mayor, the distance between the two cities is much bigger when it comes to quality of life. “We have a wonderful marina, we have a yacht club and even rural areas,” says Ms Perkins, who, with visible awe, refers to the city as “our little community”.

Although for Ms Perkins, born in the large Scottish city of Glasgow, Whitby still may feel small, it is not if measured by the pace of its growth. In the past 20 years Whitby has doubled its size and currently has 120,000 residents. Ms Perkins estimates that within the next eight years the city's population will grow by a further 80,000.

The median household income in Whitby is an estimated $95,000 – more than 20% higher than the average for the whole of Ontario – and it offers a mix of urban and rural life, but that is not the only driver behind the city’s growth. “Companies increasingly see that investing in large cities is very expensive. Our land is much more reasonably priced and we feel comfortable with what we have to offer to the investors,” says Ms Perkins.

Given the proximity to Toronto, many residents choose Whitby as their home and commute to work, but Ms Perkins says the city has greater ambitions than that. “As we are coming of age, we are looking for investors. Sony and BMW are already here, we are proud and happy to have world-class businesses located here,” she says.