Since retiring from the company he founded and built, former Corporate Research Associates (CRA) owner Don Mills has been busy.
Mills, who has spent his life examining economic and population trends, has been speaking publicly about how to revitalize the province by building on the strengths of urban hubs.
And when asked about the South Shore, Mills said the Town of Bridgewater is uniquely positioned to capitalize on his hub strategy.
“It’s already an urban centre in that part of the province for things like shopping, retail, professional services and (more),” he said.
“It has what I call critical mass, which is the ability to generate and grow the economy.”
An important piece to critical mass is people, something that most centres outside of HRM lack.
However, as pointed out by Mayor David Mitchell, Bridgewater is the fastest growing town in the province.
He said many of the town’s new residents have relocated from different parts of the Maritimes and were drawn by the town’s amenities and job opportunities.
“We are outpacing our growth from the census already, and we think it will just continue to grow,” said Mitchell.
Mills also said the town is well located within Lunenburg County, which had a population of 47,126 people as per the last census.
Many of these people are within a 50-kilometre radius from the town.
“It’s got all the elements for an urban community to be successful,” said Mills.
In addition to people, Bridgewater has a major hospital, developing infrastructure, and a major manufacturer in the Michelin plant.
Mills explained that the presence of Michelin, which has been making tires and wire in town since 1971, has helped attract workers and is a cornerstone for the town moving forward.
The question, said Mills, is how to leverage the existing assets in town to grow the economy.
“Are there opportunities to get suppliers to locate near the facility to make it easier to do business for Michelin? This is happening in Halifax with the shipyard,” he said.
Mitchell agreed, adding that the town is seeking opportunities to support the plant.
“Any community should be looking at their largest manufacturer and asking why can’t we do that here instead of shipping out for parts overseas,” said Mitchell.
“They’re a good corporate citizen. Their success is our success.”
At this time, the plant employs 1,225 employees in town, or roughly one in every eight people in Bridgewater.
Despite its resources, Mills said the town still has a lot of work to do.
“The downtown core is so important in any community. There’s a lot of work to do in Bridgewater in that regard,” he said.
For example, Mills suggested potentially building more residential units closer to the town’s core for people looking to live and work downtown.
Mitchell said the town has always had a rule about having a commercial component with residential units.
He pointed to the current developments on King and Dufferin Streets as an example of people working and living downtown but admitted that changes have been slow.
“You’re basically having consumers living among the shops and services required, and I think we’re moving towards that,” said Mitchell.
Mitchell also added that the town needs to be careful not to outgrow its current infrastructure.
“The question becomes how fast can you grow? We have challenges with the roads that we have, so before we start to go out and try to grow even faster we have to be good with the growth that we have,” he said.
Still, Mitchell said he is happy with the direction the town has taken in recent years.
“I’d rather have a busy town with potholes than a ghost town with smooth roads. You just need that perspective,” he said.
Sadly, many towns in rural Nova Scotia will become the latter if they don’t adapt.
Mills said that centres need to be proactive in attracting workers if they are to survive.
“Each of the urban centres in Atlantic Canada, including Nova Scotia, need to have their own population strategy,” he said.
“They have to figure out how to attract people to come and stay in their communities.”