April 28, 2022, Kitchener, Ontario
Posted by: Robert Deutschmann, Personal Injury Lawyer
Gerry Thompson is proud to have been a public servant for his entire career. As with the Old Grey Mayors guests, Gerry’s commitment to the community and passion for his career helped shape Waterloo Region.
Gerry wrote his personal memoir “Portrait of a Public Servant” outlining his early life and career as a civil engineer, public administrator, and finally CAO of the Region of Waterloo. He was born in Galt and lived most of his life here in the Region although retirement has taken him to the coast of British Columbia.
Gerry has always been a strong supporter of amalgamation for the Region and has never been shy with his opinions. He and Rob discuss some of the reasons for ‘bad blood’ between Cambridge and the Region, that as Rob puts it, is like Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Fortunately, over the decades, the size of the elected Regional council has decreased. Gerry believes amalgamation will strengthen the Region and streamline services, not save money.
This is Rob’s second podcast with Gerry, who was an influential player in so many of the Region’s successes. In this episode they focus on Toyota’s choice of Cambridge for a factory and how in 1985, Gerry and others made the project happen in only eleven months.
The Toyota factory opened in 1997, and a couple of generations of some families now work there. Many new residents have no idea that earth and sky were moved to ensure the plant got built. Toyota has been a driving force in the local economy, employing thousands of people directly and indirectly and changing the shape of east Cambridge.
Gerry started at the Region in 1973 as a transportation planner. By 1985 when the Toyota proposal was first floated to Cambridge staff, Gerry was the Director of Roads and Transportation for the Region. The City of Cambridge’s Director of Engineering knew that any proposal of this size would need the Region’s involvement, so he contacted Gerry informally to begin getting staff input. This is common practice for many large development proposals.
Toyota had come knocking on Cambridge’s door with the current plant site in mind. From Toyota’s perspective it was ideal. The site was flat, close to the 401 and rail line, and had a large population centre to draw workers from. On the downside, the site lacked roads, and had no sewer and water servicing. At least the land was owned by the province. It was farmland at the time, slated for residential development.
Gerry immediately talked with his boss and began liaising informally with the Cambridge and planning what needed to happen for the proposal to succeed. Toyota’s arrival would be a major ‘feather’ in the Region’s cap.
As soon as the formal proposal was made a committee was struck with the Region, Cambridge, and provincial staff to begin planning for the infrastructure required, the land sale, and all the applications for development. Gerry was the project lead and given the short timeline he insisted that the only other people on the committee had to be senior enough to make decisions on the spot.
There were meetings with the Premier, and the Ministry of the Attorney General. The newly enacted Environmental Assessment Act was circumvented to shorten public consultation timelines to meet the 11-month deadline for the project that Toyota insisted upon. In essence, if a car plant was going to be built there was no time for a proper EA.
There was a great deal of support from all levels of government for the project and things began to happen. Additional exits were planned for the 401, rail spurs extended to the plant site, roads went from two lanes to four, new roads were built, sewer and water were planned and built, and the site was graded to the Toyota requirements. At one point Gerry remarked the area looked like a battlefield there was so much mud and heavy equipment activity.
Thankfully the cooperation between civil servants and approvals from politicians resulted in the plant site approval. The plant opened for production in 1997 and has been operating ever since. The location of the plant resulted in the entire east side of this part of Cambridge becoming industrial and commercial lands with businesses, factories and support industries for Toyota locating there as well.
The location of Toyota in Cambridge proved that the Region had become a mature municipality which could be counted on to develop responsibly, on time and on budget.
You can listen to the entire story of the Toyota plant coming to Cambridge on your favourite podcast ap. Old Grey Mayors is free and remains a great window into local history!