Courtesy: Globe and Mail | Michael Babad

January 11, 2016

Welcome to Guelph

The folks at the Vienna Restaurant in downtown Guelph, Ont., were too to busy to talk to me when I phoned around brunch time yesterday to get some information about the diner, asking me nicely to call back later.

I could tell from the background noise alone.

But that told me a lot about what I already suspected were the good times in this small city about an hour away from Toronto, depending on how fast you drive.

It’s a cute city, crime is low and there are a lot of university kids. And, notably, it leads the country on the jobs front.

Guelph has generally had lower unemployment. But a rejigged ranking of Canadian cities by BMO Nesbitt Burns puts it in top spot, with jobs growth of more than 9 per cent in December compared with a year earlier, an employment rate of 72 per cent that’s the best in the country, and a jobless level that is among the lowest and now down almost a full percentage point from late 2014.

“Guelph tops the list with robust job growth, population inflows, a puny 4.2-per-cent jobless rate and the highest share of the population that is working,” BMO senior economist Robert Kavcic noted as he released the rankings after Statistics Canada’s latest labour market report on Friday.

As The Globe and Mail’s Rachelle Younglai reports, that national report showed Canada churned out almost 23,000 new jobs last month, though unemployment held firm at an uncomfortably high 7.1 per cent.

Ontario gained about 35,000 jobs, and its unemployment rate eased to 6.7 per cent. Which brings us back to Guelph, pop. 121,688 at the last official census count a few years ago.

Mr. Kavcic believes Guelph is benefiting from “broadening growth” outside the Greater Toronto Area, as are other nearby communities.

“Plus, they have a more stable and diverse job base (university, health care, etc.) than some others further south/west.”

Guelph’s economy is dependent on no one thing, unlike Oshawa and Windsor where the auto industry rules, though manufacturing has a dominant presence.

The city is also big in life sciences, biotechnology and agriculture-related industries, with a big university presence, boosted by the Guelph-Wellington Business Enterprise Centre and Innovation Guelph.

“I really want to embrace the entrepreneurial spirit,” Mayor Cam Guthrie said in an interview.

The young mayor, who has been in the position since 2014, sells his city well, citing not just the business opportunities, the land available, the five-year transformation of downtown, but also what new businesses are looking for in terms of the feel, from arts festivals to cafés to music “spilling onto the streets.”

Mr. Guthrie – you can call him “Mayor Cam” but please not “Your Worship” – said he sells businesses not only on the amenities you’d find in big cities, but also on “that small-town community feel and community spirit that is just difficult to find anywhere else.”

Major private employers in the city include auto-parts maker Linamar, The Co-operators insurance group and RWDI, a wind and environmental engineering firm headquartered in Guelph that Mr. Guthrie said is looking to double its work force.

The mayor and his council are juggling a lot: Among other things, there’s a 200-acre business park under development, with the first phase already serviced.

And along with the efforts of the Guelph economic development department, there’s a business retention team aimed at helping existing employers expand.

They sell diversification, and there’s a new tourism strategy to focus on just a couple of areas that the stakeholders believe they’re good at.

Guelph’s official plan projects 45,000 to 50,000 more people by 2031, and there’s now construction under way to house an estimated 9,000 in the downtown core, where it’s important to work and live.

From the banker to the butcher, as Mr. Guthrie put it.

And the folks at the quaint Vienna, which has been around in various forms for about a century, offers bottomless coffee, buys locally and is home to “the famous Vienna breakfast.” And the mayor dined there just last Friday.

You’d know the type of place as soon as you saw it.