Photo: Terry Pender says the growing tech sector will be transformational for downtown Kitchener.

The best perk of working as a journalist is the unending variety of assignments. You’re basically getting paid to learn new things and meet interesting people every day.

Terry Pender, the Waterloo Region Record’s tech reporter since November, will mark 30 years in the media industry next month. That’s a long time to spend in any career, but with a new beat to explore after decades covering municipal politics, the veteran scribe sees a whole new world opening up in front of him.

An increasingly large part of that world is developing on Pender’s home turf in downtown Kitchener, radiating out from the Tannery as startups outgrow the Communitech Hub and Velocity Garage and populate buildings nearby.

In other words, it’s an exciting time for a tech reporter, especially one who lives, works and plays downtown.

Pender, who has a sandwich named after him at the Yeti Café near his east-end home, is also a committed city-builder; he works in his spare time to foster the local music scene, and makes frequent forays into cities like Detroit and New York to see what’s going on.

We sat down for lunch the other day at the Firkin at the Tannery – the Firketeria, as some of us Hub denizens like to call it – where Pender shared insights into his new gig, including tips on how to get him to tell your story in the Record. (Full disclosure: we worked there together from 2000 to 2003).

Q – What’s been the biggest surprise since you took over the tech beat last November?

A – The biggest surprise about covering the tech beat so far is how much I’m enjoying it.

I was a city hall reporter for almost 30 years, and I was concerned when I was doing this change that I wouldn’t like it, that I wouldn’t know where to even begin, who to call, who to talk to.

And I’ve found everything’s been just the opposite, and it’s been a real pleasure.

Q – Why do you think that is?

A – I find that a lot of the people in the tech sector want to talk about what they’re doing. Not everyone; certainly not the big companies, but certainly the people at the Tannery, in the startups. They are driven, they’re articulate and they want to share what they’re doing with a wider audience.

In many cases, they want to further their own agenda and their own business, which is fine by me as long as there’s a good story there.

And I’m totally impressed with the range of ideas people come up with who are creating these startups. I’m just completely blown away.

[It’s everything] from 3D printers, to windows that fog instantly with Lumotune and learning about nanotechnology and what it is, and having people who’ve graduated from the nanotechnology engineering program explain it to me.

Here I’d thought nanotechnology was all about making stuff small, but it actually means something very different, going down to the near-molecular level and changing properties and using that for whatever.

This young woman in a 3D printing startup explained that to me, and how important that is for inks they’re using, for the 3D printer to lay down these inks for the circuit boards they’re making.

It’s beyond fascinating.

Q – What has this new world that you’ve stumbled into told you about Waterloo Region? Does it make you look at this area in a different way?

A – Yes, on several levels.

I’ve always been a big supporter of universities and university education; I’ve pushed my son hard to do that. But, covering this beat now, I have a newfound appreciation for the foresight of the old-school industrialists – Hagey, Ira Needles, Kaufman – who created the University of Waterloo back in the late 50s.

These old-school, dirty, filthy industries, like rubber, these guys wanted better engineers for their factories, and they got this thing going and put in a co-op program. And now the cycle’s complete; all those old industries are almost all gone, and in some of the buildings, like Kaufman Lofts, we have these young techies living there and working over here [at the Tannery], and I just find that circle very, very interesting.

So I have a really newfound appreciation for the importance of the universities, and for economic development, for city-building and for the future economy of the city.

Q – What types of tech stories are you looking for in particular?

A – Well, the easy answer – and it’s probably an unhelpful answer – is anything interesting.

You can define ‘interesting’ in a lot of ways. First of all, is the technology that someone’s working on in the news in some way? Is it timely and tied into something going on elsewhere, even tangentially?

That’s always a good hook.

What got me about that 3D printing story was that 3D printers are so hot and all the rage right now, and here we’ve got a startup trying to make one to do circuit boards. I didn’t realize the significance of printing a circuit board actually made that story even better.

The Bitcoin story that I did was because Bitcoin was getting a lot of ink, and Mt. Gox had just gone under. It was in the news in a large way, and we had a startup here that was making it easier to get them.

Whenever I can tie a startup, or whatever’s happening in the tech sector here, to a larger story across the country or around the world, it’s always a very easy sell.

Also, if it’s so completely novel that it’s self-evident that this is really, really going to be something…I go back to that 3D printing company, those Lumotune guys – to me, that’s really, really novel and I haven’t heard of anybody else doing that stuff. I imagine there are others doing it and I imagine there’s a bit of a race on, but I mean, I’m not aware of it.

I’m always, always interested in hearing a pitch. They can find me on Google+, they can find me Facebook, on Twitter, or they can just get me at The Record, at tpender@therecord.com, or terryepender@gmail.com.

I’ve always got time to listen to or read a pitch for a story, any time.

Q – Tell me about your journalism career. How long have you been at it, and what course has it taken?

A – On April 2, I will mark 30 years as a reporter. I started on April 2, 1984 at a radio station in Sudbury. They were using typewriters.

I graduated from high school in London, Ont. in 1980, and the courses we would take back then related to computers were data processing, with punch-card technology. They had these enormous machines that would take up everything in this room, and you’d put your stack of cards in and they’d get sorted.

One of the jobs I had in high school was working for CP Rail in a customer service office right next to the tracks in east London, and again, it was data cards, punch-card technology, to track the movement of all rail cars across Canada.

So that was where my head was at with computers.

Then I started working [in journalism] just about six weeks after Steve Jobs unveiled the Macintosh, right at the dawn of that era. I’ll never forget the ad Ridley Scott did for the Super Bowl that year.

I worked in radio for four and a half years, and while I was doing that, I started freelancing for the Globe and Mail. I became a stringer for the Globe because radio paid so poorly, and then I used my Globe and Mail clippings to get a job at the Sudbury Star, and I started there in October of 1988.

We were using these Hastech desktop computers, a mainframe out in the back shop, and we had these little Tandys with acoustic couplers. I latched onto those right away and then I could file from anywhere. That was brilliant.

I was at the Sudbury Star from October ’88 until May of 2000, when I came to work at The Record.

I had a gig freelancing for the CBC while I was at the Sudbury Star, during Peter Gzowski’s Morningside. Every three weeks I’d do a Northern Ontario report, and that lasted from ’94 to ’97.

Then, when I came here, it was all about city halls until I moved onto the tech beat.

Q – You take a great interest in the community outside of your role as a journalist. Tell me why you’re so passionate about building the community and about some of the activities you’re involved in.

A – When I moved into downtown Kitchener in May of 2000, I fell in love with it right away. It was like coming home.

I loved the neighbourhood I moved into, Cedar Hill, and I have this apartment with a deck shaded by a maple tree, overlooking the intersection at Church and Cedar.

I could walk to Centre in the Square in 15 minutes; it was just a short bike ride to the Iron Horse Trail; and the farmers’ market at that time was in the garage of the mall, and now it’s even closer to where I am, and I just love that.

The park was nearby; the library; the Registry Theatre; the Boathouse when it got going.

I can leave my apartment and get on a bus on New Year’s Eve, and not pay because it’s free on New Year’s Eve, go up to The Jazz Room, ring in the new year, get back on a bus and get dropped off at the foot of my hill. And when the LRT is going, it’s going to be one block from my place.

It’s an incredible neighbourhood and one of the country’s best-kept secrets, in my opinion.

What it lacks is good, live theatre, which we had but got incinerated because of this foolish internecine squabble, and we can always use more live music.

I saw what the Boathouse could do for building community in downtown Kitchener, and what it did for the musicians and the music scene here; it was absolutely incredible. I get very sad when I think about what we lost; hopefully we’ll get it back, but we don’t know yet.

Being part of that scene at the Boathouse as a customer, enjoying the music and making all kinds of friends there, when I saw it forced out of business, there was a void for more music. And so, I’ve been trying to present jazz shows, because I fell in love with jazz.

And that’s a real hard sell. Trying to get 50 people to buy a ticket to go and see a jazz show is all it takes to put it on, but sometimes getting those 50 people is really hard.

The first show I did, there was no problem. The second show I did was good. The third show I had to cancel because I didn’t sell a single ticket.

Now, I think I learned something about spacing them a little farther apart, and being a little more aggressive in the marketing, so you’re not trying to sell two shows at once, or you don’t just have a couple of weeks left to sell the second show. That’s what happened.

But I think music is one of the best ways of building community and tying a community together like nothing else. And being able to walk around your neighbourhood, walk to your restaurants, the farmers’ market, and having terrific cycling infrastructure are the main ingredients I’m looking for in a successful neighbourhood.

For the most part, we have that; we just need more music.

It’s interesting that McCabe’s has finally cottoned on and they’re going to start having bands in there every weekend, and try to expand it during the week.

Q – When you see the tech community growing in downtown Kitchener, what potential do you see for impact on what you’re talking about? Does the tech community have a role to play in city-building?

A – Oh, absolutely. If the tech sector continues on its current trajectory, then I think it’s going to be absolutely transformative for downtown Kitchener.

I think you’re going to see thousands of people living in rental accommodation and condos; I think you’re going to see all of these parking lots that surround this building where we are right now redeveloped into multi-storey, mixed-use buildings and clusters of buildings.

And getting all of those people living downtown is going to be the best thing that could happen to the downtown. You’ll get more personal services, more restaurants, more cafés and more music venues.

But I think you have to have the people first.

I can’t believe the pace of the development now, at King and Victoria, and then the same guys are doing another building at 100 Victoria; the Arrow Lofts; the Kaufman Lofts. They’re putting the crane up down at City Centre condos.

When I moved into the neighbourhood and walked past the Arrow Shirt factory when it was still in production, I’d look down into the windows and see these Asian women working on the factory floor, making these garments, and that was in 2000.

Within weeks of tariffs coming off textiles coming from China, the Arrow Shirt factory closed and a London developer bought it. But these things take time; some of these factories are really, really dirty and it took him five years to clean it up.

But I think if the tech sector continues to expand – and it appears to be at a sustainable pace; a lot of startups get going and a lot of them fold, but some of them leave here and are populating buildings downtown with new businesses, which is really exciting – I think it’s going to absolutely change the face of downtown Kitchener.

It’s going to become one of the most interesting, walkable, diverse neighbourhoods in southern Ontario, particularly once we get the LRT rolling and it’s fully integrated with two-way, all-day GO service, seven days a week, to Toronto.

Q – That’s a departure from the sleepy, suburban lifestyle this area has been known for up to this point. How do you think the broader region will cope with this shift? Does it set up potential conflict, or does it just add to the richness of the place?

A – I think it adds to the richness of the place, and I think pretty much anyone I’ve spoken to agrees.

The City of Kitchener, I think, has really embraced the whole digital media cluster, and it now has a landing pad program for startups coming out of here, so they’ll help the developers renovate space to make it good for startups. I think that’s a great idea. Then you’ve got the Region doing the LRT.

I think it’s going to become a very, very attractive place to live. I think you’re going to see a significant increase in rents, and the cost of living in downtown Kitchener is actually going to go through the roof in the next 10 years, or even less. In my neighbourhood it’s already started.

In the first five or six years I lived in it, every day I’d see street-level hookers, dodgy, sketchy people around, and now I don’t see that any more, or it’s very infrequent. What I see now are people who want to work at their laptops, riding longboards, fixing bikes.

That’s happening on Cedar Hill, and also at those gorgeous old apartments over on College Street. Same thing; full of techies.

People in the tech sector can afford to pay more for rent and landlords are charging more, and that is going to make this neighbourhood very different.

There’s a lumpen element to downtown Kitchener; a lot of people, once there was a decline in traditional manufacturing, they didn’t get new jobs in the tech sector, and they’re going to be left behind. I think it’s up to the region and the city to try and look after them with affordable housing somewhere.

I’ve been reading about San Francisco, and it’s getting just like New York City; it’s so rich now that people just can’t afford to live there. So they’re training out into the Valley, and they’re training back in to go to work.

I think the LRT, better bus transit and better connections to Toronto will all help.

Someone was telling me about New York City’s jazz scene. There are 50,000 jazz musicians living in New York City, and New York is expensive, but because the public transportation is so good, they can get around to the boroughs where they don’t have to pay so much for rent, and they can quickly get down to Greenwich Village where they’re paid to perform.

Without that world-class system of subways and trains, the jazz scene wouldn’t be nearly as vibrant – and it’s more vibrant now than it ever has been.

Q – That shows you how important transit is.

A – Yes, it’s good and it’s all night, so they can play and get off at 2 or 3 in the morning. They may have to wait half an hour, but the subway’s coming to take them home.

And Boston, a city that is very wealthy, very old, has a great university presence, a world-famous music school, the Berklee College of Music, is shit for jazz, and it’s because their public transportation doesn’t run all night and it’s crap compared to New York. So, the musicians can’t afford to live there and play there.

I can’t stress how important it is, I think, to get those trains and buses connecting this region together in a way that it never has been before. That’ll be good for the arts; they’ll have an audience down here with disposable income, and if the rents do go up and they can’t afford to live downtown any more, they can quickly get home on the LRT or on a rapid bus.

Q – Anything you’d like to add?

A – I’m totally blown away by this fierce work ethic that I see in the Velocity Garage. That I really find incredible; coming in at 9 or 10 in the morning and it’s really quiet, but then I’m in there at 5 or 6 at night and it seems to be just peaking.

It’s really, really hard work, which is impressive.

And then, just the breadth [of work], as I was saying before – everything from helping teachers plan their lessons, to a satellite that Communitech is going to be putting up soon, down near the Apps Factory.

Someone else I was interviewing has a startup, but I wasn’t even talking to him about his startup, and his hobby is the satellite club at UW, and they’re entering a satellite in a nanosatellite contest. That’s really impressive stuff.

Anthony Reinhart is Communitech’s Director of Editorial Strategy and senior staff writer. View from the ‘Loo is a weekly look at the issues, people and events that shape Waterloo Region’s technology sector.

About The Author

Anthony Reinhart
Director, Editorial Strategy
Google+

Anthony Reinhart is a veteran journalist who left the Globe and Mail to join Communitech in 2011. Tony has covered everything from crime, politics and courts to business, the arts and sports, and his writing has won numerous journalism awards. He is Communitech's Director of Editorial Strategy and senior staff writer.