After a decade of steady growth, the City of Welland, Ontario is at last beginning to receive the attention it deserves. Throughout the pandemic, people continued to flock to the area for its space and amenities combined with its proximity to the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) and New York State. Welland is located in the Regional Municipality of Niagara in Southern Ontario, only twenty minutes from the world-renowned Niagara Falls.
Welland offers an abundance of opportunities for outdoor activities and events, which, of course, have grown in popularity in the last few years of avoiding crowded indoor spaces. Emerging from the pandemic, the City is experiencing an influx of re-engagement in all kinds of recreational opportunities, indoors and outdoors.
“We’ve continued to see that growth and investment in the City before and after COVID,” says Director of Planning and Development Services Grant Munday. “On average, we were experiencing approximately a forty percent increase in the last five years in new dwelling unit starts year-over-year, and it appears that will be the case this year as well.”
Welland’s growth is predominantly in the built-up area of the City, which is more sustainable for planning and land use. “We are utilizing plans that are already developed in some cases, intensifying the use and reducing the greenfield growth, which decreases consumption of agricultural land,” says Munday. Within its agricultural area, the City has less than one percent growth in terms of new dwelling unit developments.
The population has grown from roughly 52,000 to 56,000 in just three years, but Welland expects these numbers to increase substantially. As a result of a new development charge study based on its building permit data, the City has re-evaluated its growth projections and they look promising. According to current and anticipated building permit activity, the City expects its population to increase by 24,000 people in the next ten years. In the following ten years, from 2032 to 2041, Welland expects an additional 22,897 people. If the building trend continues, this brings the population close to 100,000. This residential growth will also lead to more investment in commercial and industrial development in the area.
The City invests in community improvement plans to develop the economy, the workforce, and the quality of life. For example, the brownfield community improvement plan offers financial incentives encouraging builders to remediate or redevelop abandoned and neglected properties around the City. Many projects are approved under this program, and Empire Communities will develop one particularly large project.
“Empire Communities is constructing 2,000 units on the former John Deere industrial site and Transport Canada lands, and that development is subject to incentives under that community improvement plan,” says Munday.
Empire Communities has also made investments to improve the quality of life in Welland. It has completed and recently opened a sports facility—the Empire Sportsplex—is building a new bridge, developing parks, and has contributed towards a community trail strategy. All of this development stemmed from the brownfield community improvement plan.
Other brownfield projects in various stages of development include everything from cleaning the lands to constructing new buildings. The community improvement plan has been successfully helping return previous industrial and commercial lands to clean spaces that allow for reinvestment in the City. Currently, hundreds of millions of dollars are being invested into the City due to this program.
The City of Welland updated its zoning bylaws in 2017 to allow for more non-traditional types of housing amongst the typical single-detached dwellings and large apartment buildings. These include accessory dwellings, townhouses, multiplexes, and small and medium-sized apartment buildings. The zoning by-law was also amended to reduce the minimum dwelling unit size that was originally put in place to prevent rental housing. This has opened up the potential to develop tiny houses.
Another housing initiative underway is an affordable housing community improvement plan (CIP). It is intended that the Affordable Housing CIP will offer various financial and other incentives to promote the construction of not-for-profit and for-profit affordable housing. Hopefully, it helps attract more affordable housing to the City as this is a significant goal of the council.
The Welland Canal has clear, clean water and is quite large at roughly three hundred meters wide, making it a highly appealing feature and focal point of the City. The City recently entered into a purchase and sale agreement to sell an approximately 152-acre parcel of land along the canal for mixed-use residential development. The intention is to ensure that the whole community has access to the canal.
“They are proposing a pedestrian bridge over the recreational canal to Merritt Island. They will be adding some docks along the canal for mixed-use. There will be some commercial development there, with restaurants and a gathering place. It’ll be like a centre of the community where people can have markets, food trucks, and events,” says Lina DeChellis, Manager of Economic Development.
The canal land development should take five to ten years to complete and will be a great addition to the recreational corridor running through the entire community. “We still are just using the recreational canal for all non-motorized activity,” explains Rob Axiak, Director of Community Services. “Also, the recreational canal is looking to be further connected from a community trails strategy that we’ve now implemented. It’s a long-term strategy, over a twenty-year period, where we’re looking for full connectivity of our trail system. A significant portion of that will run alongside the recreational canal.”
The Empire Sportsplex mentioned previously is located at the Welland International Flatwater Centre, just off the recreational canal. It has many outdoor sports opportunities, including courts for pickleball, volleyball, beach volleyball, basketball, tennis, and badminton; a turf area; and a Jumpstart inclusive multi-sport court. Welland is also partnering with Canadian Tire Jumpstart Charities in developing a fully accessible splash pad at Rotary Park.
Welland is highly resident-focused and rich with parks throughout the community, and its people truly value the green spaces and the trail systems. After two years without events because of the pandemic, the City kicked off the summer this year hosting exciting new events as well as the usual favourites.
“This summer, we will be one of the sites hosting events for the Canada Summer Games,” says Axiak. “That should draw a pretty big crowd for various sites throughout the City, including the Flatwater Centre and our tennis club.”
The future of Welland is bright and full of possibilities for growth and expansion. However, maintaining its focus on economic development requires a balance of creating jobs and developing its workforce.
Businesses across many industries are having difficulty finding employees, and the City supports various workforce development initiatives to help mitigate this problem. “We recently had a roundtable with the mayor, industry leaders, university school boards, and employment agencies to brainstorm what kind of issues can be put together to help address this. A lot of the talk was that we have to get to people at an earlier age to get them thinking of options,” says DeChellis. The trades are suffering with recruitment, and Welland hopes that talking to students at an earlier age will create more interest in these sectors.
The City is currently experiencing a transformation. As it evolves, it strives to ensure it can deliver the proper infrastructure, services, and amenities to care for its growing population.
“We don’t want to end up in a situation where we have all this growth but don’t have a plan for managing it,” says Munday. “We have a plan, and that’s something we will continually implement as we work our way through the next ten to twenty years.” It speaks volumes when City leaders focus intently on keeping the residents’ quality of life a foremost concern as the City grows.