Photo: Light rail transit will be “a tie that binds our cities”: Alex Kinsella

BY ALEX KINSELLA

I’ve lived in Waterloo Region for just over 10 years now – and I’m going to go ahead and declare that I now qualify as a “local”.

Looking back over this last decade, it’s amazing to see the growth in the community. What’s even more amazing is how the spirit of what makes Waterloo Region a great place to live and work has kept constant.

For background’s sake: Before I moved here, I worked for a small software company called Entrada Technologies down in West Palm Beach, Fla. In today’s vernacular, we’d call it a bootstrapped startup.

Three years in (and bucking the trend of U.S. companies buying Canadian companies), we were acquired by Waterloo-based Global Beverage Group. Shortly after the acquisition, Greg Pogue, now at Rebellion Media, called and presented me with an opportunity to move to Waterloo and work out of GBG’s corporate headquarters.

I had never been to Canada, and really didn’t know anything about Waterloo other than BlackBerry smartphones were made there and it was kind of near Toronto. But the lure of a new adventure called, so I packed everything I owned into my Isuzu Rodeo and made the trek north – a trek in January, with no snow tires, and having never driven in snow before.

After that two-day journey, I vowed to set my truck on fire before I’d ever make that drive again. Little did I know that Waterloo Region would offer so many reasons to stay.

I worked for GBG for the next four years, then made my way (as many do) to BlackBerry for the next five years. This past January, an opportunity to build something new came with a role at Thalmic Labs. The chance to be part of a company from the ground up, based in the midst of downtown Kitchener’s fast-growing startup scene, with a group of people who appreciated the lifestyle this region offers, was one I couldn’t turn down.

So, what makes Waterloo Region the way it is?

It’s that Oktoberfest feeling of “gemuetlichkeit” – the way the community accepts and includes everyone. It’s the way you can walk around Uptown Waterloo or Downtown Kitchener and run into at least one person you know (and often way more than one). It’s seeing Sean or Dawne from SNAP at the seemingly endless run of events that our community puts on. It’s the celebration of our successes and the limitless support from people and businesses in times of need.

While there are a lot of positives, there are also a few negatives, and one of those negative things has been the tone of the debate on the future of transportation in our region. Instead of a healthy debate of issues, some have descended to simply name-calling and bullying.

I’ve made my home in what I like to call the DMZ – the Union area between Kitchener and Waterloo. I can easily walk or take transit to either city core – and all the shopping, dining, and entertainment that both areas offer.

There’s a sibling rivalry between the two cities, and while it’s often healthy, it can turn negative. We’ve seen that in voter initiatives to discuss the idea of amalgamating. We’re seeing it again in recent discussions about the light rail transit plan – the ION.

I’m pro-ION, and it’s a good thing, because the LRT has been approved and changes to roads and utility lines have already started.

There are a lot of great reasons to build the ION. In the long term, it will be more economical and environmentally friendly than the buses it will replace.

It will align with the vision of two-way GO Train service that will enable workers – and not just tech workers – to travel more easily between Toronto and Waterloo Region. It will help alleviate traffic on our already congested streets.

There’s also a symbolic win with the ION – it is a physical link between Kitchener and Waterloo (and eventually Cambridge). It’s a steel rail that unites our cities, and strengthens the cores of both communities.

The overall health of a city can be judged by the health of its core. Both our downtowns today have thriving commercial businesses during the day and an increasingly vibrant restaurant and entertainment scene at night.

The key to growth here is to ensure residential growth in our cores and easy commutes into these cores from our suburbs and beyond – and ION is already influencing new home construction downtown.

The debate against ION seems to come down to a fear of what it will mean to the identity of our community. Will it change into something we don’t recognize?

I’ve been witness to 10 years of growth and upheaval. We’ve all experienced the pain of layoffs and closures, mixed with the joys of success and the birth of new industries that were once science fiction.

Can you imagine how the tanners at Lang 100 years ago would react to what the students of the UW Velocity program are building in their former workspace today?

The next milestone for the ION will be on March 4, when regional councillors vote on the contract and choose which construction consortium will build the LRT. I’ll be there to listen to the debate, hear what my fellow citizens have to say, and hopefully help clear up doubts around ION and the LRT plan.

The ION is the bridge to the next level of growth – a tie that binds our cities and a way to carry our values from today into the Waterloo Region of the future.

Guest contributor Alex Kinsella has lived and worked in Waterloo Region since 2004, with stints at GBG/HighJump Software, BlackBerry and Thalmic Labs. He is a fan of (in no specific order) Ethel’s Lounge, McCabe’s Irish Pub and The Bauer Kitchen.