Mayor discusses influences on city growth

Brenda Halloran entered political office for the first time in 2006 after being voted mayor of Waterloo. (Photo by Nick Lachance)
Brenda Halloran entered political office for the first time in 2006 after being voted mayor of Waterloo. (Photo by Nick Lachance)

“I know people will find this kind of strange, but I knew I was going to win. Even though everybody else doubted me and thought I was crazy,” recalled Waterloo mayor Brenda Halloran.

Halloran, now mayor for seven years, didn’t have any political experience when she entered the race for community leadership, but she did have the motivation.

She spent years petitioning city hall after discovering her Kitchener townhouse was built on a contaminated landfill site.

“That experience profoundly changed me and made me realize that people need to be taken care of by the system, not fought by the system,” she said.

In 2006, with the support of her family, Halloran ran for mayor and won.

Halloran has had some unique challenges to face since she took office as the mayor of a city with a vastly expanding student population.

“The universities are almost like a Vatican in Rome, because the universities are a totally separate world that’s in the centre of our city and we’re all around,” she said. “The excitement of having the students here, the vitality and the economic benefit is astonishing.”

At the time she became mayor, Halloran found that there was not a large focus on establishing relationships between students and the city, which is something she’s tried to remedy since.

However, she still finds that there is more to be done in ensuring students are engaged in their community.

“I think there’s a lot more students who could be engaged,” she said. “Come out and see the whole community for what it is and help us. Volunteer and be a part of it. There’s a need everywhere.”

The development of the Northdale area has been a major focus for the city over the last several years. Immense development has been occurring in the student housing bloc, with old houses being torn down in favour of high-rise apartment buildings.

“That area has been a difficult challenge for all of us because of the age of the buildings and … just the infrastructure of the whole community,” Halloran commented.

She added, “We have a lot of student housing being built and the positive side is that it’s new, it’s clean, it’s safe.”

However, with the advent of these newer buildings comes greater capacity housing units and the need for more people to fill them. According to Halloran, this is largely out of the city’s control.

“We do have some concerns that it’s been overbuilt,” she said. “We voiced those concerns to the developers who wanted to build student housing, saying you know, there’s a lot on the market and the student population isn’t growing as fast as what you’re building.”

A lot of the focus now will be on ensuring there are sufficient amenities to support incoming populations.

Other major developments during her tenure as mayor have come through the explosion of Waterloo’s technology sector.

“Waterloo is seen globally as one of the most prominent tech sectors in North America and we come by that with a lot of hard work and a lot of innovation and collaboration within the community,” said Halloran.

“I travel as a mayor and I’m able to sell us, to talk about Waterloo Region as a tech centre, as an academic centre, as a knowledge economy.”

Organizations such as Communitech, The Accelerator Centre and Canada’s Technology Triangle have helped foster tech development.

Although the job can be demanding — Halloran hasn’t had a day off in about seven years — she says as long as the voters support her and her physical health permits, she’ll continue to be mayor of Waterloo.

“Some days are just breathtaking, other days are really stressful. And I think, I didn’t know if I want to do this anymore, it’s not as much fun,” Halloran considered.

“And then I wake up and it’s a beautiful day to start again. And I feel very privileged that I can do this position.”

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