Downtown Brampton has quietly positioned itself as an tech leader in the GTA, and with last week’s announcement that Rogers is building an office campus there, its plan is coming to fruition.

Brampton’s Economic Development Office conceived of what it calls the Innovation District in 2018 by testing a hypothetical tech hub in the city’s downtown. It held 40 events over the year, which Devin Ramphal, Section Manager of Innovation and Technology, describes as tech socials, and with around 5,000 attendees, he says it was a resounding success.

“They came from as far east as Pickering and Ajax and as far west as Waterloo just to participate in these tech events we were having in Brampton,” he said. “We had outstanding results; our hypothesis was proven.”

With an eye on rendering Brampton unrecognizable by 2051, the inchoate experiment has thusly proven successful, enticing Rogers to become an anchor tenant and build a 200,000 square foot mixed-use office complex in downtown Brampton that will sit adjacently to Brampton GO on Church St.

Brampton is trying to set itself apart from other regional tech hubs like those found in Kitchener-Waterloo and Markham, but particularly downtown Toronto, by developing a niche in cyber security. As a testament to the Department of Economic Development’s confidence in its initiative, the Centre for Innovation—which Shahid Mahmood, Principal Planner for Downtown Brampton, says will have a “cyber range” that he describes as being what a flight simulator is to a pilot—is already complete.

“That is also located in the Innovation District,” Mahmood said, adding that it has a “cyber security accelerator,” and is there to be used by “firms across Canada and the world to scale their companies and grow them.”

The Innovation District has had $50.2 million invested in it from parnters in addition to $25 million from the City of Brampton and $10 million from the federal government, and it will benefit from the so-called Innovation Corridor—transit connectivity to Kitchener-Waterloo and Toronto.

The City of Brampton has also partnered with the Ryerson Venture Zone to encourage entrepreneurship and cultivate homegrown talent, while tech incubator Altitude Accelerator, formerly known as RIC Centre, has enthusiastically made Brampton its new permanent home after moving out of Mississauga. Although still early days, the infrastructure has already graduated 433 startup companies, Shahid says.

Moreover, the Brampton Entrepreneur Centre, located at 41 George St, was used by 400 small business operators in 2019, which leaves little doubt that a major gap in the marketplace is being satisfied.

“Downtown Brampton is in the midst of creating a rich blend, and you have the River Walk and the Centre for Innovation hoping to really build up the streetscape with public realm improvements, which will benefit city and attract future developments,” Shahid said. “This is critical where you see employment and new development come in. Dowbtown Brampton itself received around 6,500 new residential and mixed-use development proposals, so we’re seeing an uptick in interest, and projects like Rogers and the Centre for Innovation are really catalytic and they will transform the city. In the medium term, it will turn the city around.”

In addition to critical infrastructure work, like replacing watermains, the streetscape is being improved with wider sidewalks and greenery. Every principal downtown street will have a dedicated bike lane, and the city is exploring street art and murals.

Jamieson Jackson, Managing Director of the GTA Office Practice Group at Colliers, says downtown Brampton has immense potential to develop an office district because it’s cost effective. The vacancy rate was 2.3% last quarter, according to Colliers figures, substantially below the GTA West average of 12.7%, Moreover, while the GTA’s average asking net rent is $24.57 per square foot, it’s only $17.53 in Brampton. Considering that real estate is a cornerstone of most companies’ growth strategies, the downtown Brampton market is well positioned.

“We see that as a high potential area because the primary goal of real estate is to improve company productivity and help them build culture, and to do that you need to be where your staff is,” Jackson said. “There’s a lot of talent in and around Brampton, so we expect to see more developments like [Rogers’ office campus].”

Colliers data indicates there is 31,000 square feet of office space under construction in Brampton with another 390,000 in the planning process, but the calibre of offices will determine popularity, Jackson added.

“There’s a flight to quality that’s pronounced in Brampton, so the city will have very high-end office space,” he said. “The availability rate went from 2.1% in Q3-2020 to 6.8% last quarter across all of Brampton, but if you look at just Class-A space, it went from 1.1% in Q3-2020 to 2.9%, so it went up but nowhere near as much as the overall market, and what that’s showing is it’s a flight to quality.”

Metrolinx’s Kitchener Line, which goes through downtown Brampton, connects the area east of Toronto with Kitchener-Waterloo and it will undoubtedly help Brampton attract more talent. A less onerous commute coupled with the fact that the majority of companies will adopt a hybrid work model, at least once the pandemic subsides, will make working in Brampton an easier proposition than it has ever been.

“More transit always opens up more opportunity for talent because you widen the base which people can commute in, especially in a hybrid working environment,” Jackson said. “We might not see people come in five days a week or 9-5, so transit has a more magnified effect than it did before because it allows Brampton to have a larger catchment area.”

And while Brampton will certainly give other regional tech hubs, like those in downtown Toronto and Kitchener-Waterloo, a run for their money, Ramphal insists the city is merely complimenting them.

“We’re looking to compliment, not compete. There’s a lot of automation and AI in Toronto and in Brampton we’re building a niche around cyber security,” he said. “There’s a lot of growth happening there in the news every single day, and in Brampton we have one of the best partners in the Innovation District in Rogers.”