As Surrey’s suburban commuters wake up each morning for the daily gridlock into Vancouver, Jeff MacAulay is heading the other way.
It’s a short 10-minute drive along Surrey farm roads for the chief operating officer of Endurance Wind Power, a clean-tech wind turbine manufacturer located in Campbell Heights – an area adjacent to Pacific Highway, close to the U.S. border. MacAulay is not one of the daily shufflers: he’s part of a growing demographic reaping the benefits of working close to home.
“It’s a nice work-life balance,” he said from the company’s new headquarters. In August, Endurance moved to a bigger space in the same business park, despite options to set up shop in Richmond or Burnaby – both more traditional settings for an outfit like his. Surrey won out for two reasons: a cheaper lease and employee proximity.
“We polled the staff and just had a significant enough base that either were from [Surrey] originally, or had moved out to this area, that we decided to stay.”
While Surrey is fast becoming its own metropolis, many workers are still heading over the Port Mann, Pattullo or Alex Fraser bridges for their paycheque. Surrey’s next challenge is to keep those workers on their side of the Fraser River, something easier said than done when the majority of the region’s white-collar jobs are still located elsewhere.
Campbell Heights is one of eight business parks in the city earmarked for expansion and growth. For businesses, it’s five minutes from the U.S. border, 15 from the Trans Canada Highway and boasts the lowest light industry and business tax rates in the region. Commercial lease rates are more affordable, and for employees living nearby, so are mortgages.
The retail and commercial sector near Campbell Heights, together with the Grandview Corners and Morgan Crossing shopping centres, have already undergone a metamorphosis. A building less than five kilometres from MacAulay’s office will soon house Surrey’s Grandview Heights Aquatic Centre, featuring an Olympic-sized swimming pool. With amenities filling the area, MacAulay said the talent pool now has to follow suit.
“In general, the higher-tech, younger crowd wants to live still in an active environment. So a lot of the shops out here, they’ll have management employees but they won’t have a lot of white-collar, professional engineering resources,” he said. “Recruitment has been a challenge, to be out this far.”
Luring the right kind of workers is a major economic issue the city’s new mayor will face after November’s election. Canada’s fourth-fastest-growing city needs educated and skilled boots on the floor, but the debate rages as to what role the city should play.
Doug McCallum, who was Surrey’s mayor from 1996-2005, is back for another shot at the job. He thinks Mayor Dianne Watts, who unseated him in 2005, racked up too much debt trying to stimulate economic growth in the area and has strongly criticized the amount the city owes – $245 million or close to a third of its financial assets last year. He has vowed to rein in government spending if returned to office.
“There’s no place for … cities to have that kind of debt,” McCallum said. “There is a role to encourage economic development, but not in land speculation and free enterprise.”
At the end of 2013, the Surrey City Development Corp. (SCDC) – which oversees the city’s real estate development sector – had a net debt of close to $100 million. With multiple major projects underway, fellow mayoral candidate Linda Hepner, a city councillor with outgoing Mayor Watts’ Surrey First slate, sees it as a sign the city is doing something right in terms of cultivating a downtown core that’s attractive for businesses.
“I think investors expect you to have vision,” said Hepner, who was the city’s former manager of economic development prior to running for council. “I think any time you have land that you can utilize to taxpayers’ advantage, you should. That has allowed us to keep our taxes low, and to develop partnerships that have been very effective.”
Hepner said she would make sure the city “maintained that momentum,” in particular around City Centre and around its health tech hub Innovation Boulevard, which has the $512 million Surrey Memorial Hospital expansion as its centrepiece.
McCallum, however, would axe the SCDC, and leave growth strategy largely to private developers. As for Councillor Barinder Rasode, also running for mayor, the key lies in a balance between building and letting build.
“Surrey’s revenues at this point are $788 million a year; that’s significant and that will grow with business,” Rasode said. “That’s why we need to grow business. Because the best tax base for any municipality is business: commercial taxes, retail taxes, our DCCs [Development Cost Charges] that come from development. And that’s our job creation engine. That job creation comes from all of that work.”
Surrey is adding close to 1,200 people to its tax base per month. However, that also means a rise in employable workers. And according to a recent report released by SurreyCares, Surrey got a ‘C’ in the category of “economy and work,” based on the views of 571 respondents.
The 2014 Vital Signs report also highlighted the need for more local jobs and employment, as well as to improve transportation to business and industrial areas. Elizabeth Model, chief executive officer for the Downtown Surrey Business Improvement Association, said growing pains are an unavoidable but not insurmountable symptom of the city’s growth.
“As business and educational institutions envision opportunity and requirements, they will do what is right and necessary for them to succeed,” Model said.
She’s not worried about the city’s growth, but rather what growth brings with it – mainly gridlock.
“The major concern is transportation. If we are to grow and develop as forecasted, then as a city and indeed as a region, [Metro Vancouver] has to make some regional transportation investments.” •
Surrey’s population and economy on the rise
Between 2003 and 2013, Surrey’s population increased by more than 100,000 residents.
The city’s current population of approximately 509,000 is projected to grow by more than 300,000 over the next three decades and surpass Vancouver as the Lower Mainland’s biggest city.
Surrey is expected to add more than 600,000 jobs to the region by 2041.
– With files from Patrick Blennerhassett