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Innovation and Sustainability: The Driving Forces Behind Economic Development in Peterborough & the Kawarthas

Photo of Dave Parsell
Dave Parsell
November 20, 2023

Ninety minutes Northeast of Toronto, there’s a region that offers multifaceted value. Rich, open scenery. Bustling post-secondary institutions. A business environment both ambitious and community-minded.

For the locals of Ontario metropolises, that region – named Peterborough & the Kawarthas – is tough to ignore. It’s inviting: with well-known cottage real estate, infinite cycling routes, and neighborly communities, it promises the perfect backdrop for relaxation.

It’s convenient: with direct routes from highways, an interconnected trail system, and a distinctly walkable city, it promises the ideal environment for work-life balance.

From winter weekends spent cross-country skiing and ice fishing to summer seasons spent on and near the historic Trent-Severn Waterway, Peterborough & the Kawarthas has earned its reputation as a region for leisure.  


But while its bodies of water and concentration of cottages, resorts, and camp grounds illustrate a section of Ontario that’s booming for vacationers, the truth is, the region has steadily been booming for so much more.

The Region

A mid-sized city. Eight rural townships. Two First Nation communities. While Peterborough & the Kawarthas is known for its cottage country landscape and rolling agricultural lands, the true scope of its geography is far more diverse.

There’s its dynamic urban centre: fuelled by local businesses.There’s its vibrant fresh food scene:supported by 863 farms. There are its national and multinational manufacturers: furthering the region’s long-standing manufacturing history. There are its lively campuses: molding talented minds.

On the one hand, the region has focused on preserving its natural surroundings and letting them inform its offerings; looking at expected industries like tourism and agriculture, it’s no surprise that it’s stood out. But on the other hand, Peterborough & the Kawarthas has refused to let itself get pigeonholed. 


Instead, it’s decided to nurture a wide range of industries in pursuit of a more sustainable economic landscape. Instead, it’s decided to barrel head-first toward innovation – on its own terms. 

The Entity

Peterborough & the Kawarthas Economic Development(PKED) has been a regional force since 1998. Responsible for leading a multitude of portfolios – including investment attraction, business retention and expansion, the Business Advisory Centre, and the Destination Marketing Organization (including regional Visitor Services)– it’s needed to be capable and collaborative across niches.

But it’s also needed to be strategic and discerning.

Equipped with a mandate from the City of Peterborough and Peterborough County that vows to drive the region forward economically without sacrificing the ethics of the community, PKED has been focused on two things: innovation and sustainability. 

As Rhonda Keenan, PKED’s President and Chief Executive Officer, explains: “We’re trying to grow our economy while making sure we’re respecting our environment.”

The Why

But to get the attention of the decision-makers they’re targeting – in key industries like clean tech and aerospace – Keenan and her team have had to make their region’s utility crystal clear. That means crafting a marketing strategy that’s multifarious and intentional, and it means constructing a narrative that’s so compelling, it can’t help but get heard.

Enter: PKED’s why story – in three pillars.

First, there’s Talent: from the highly-trained labor segment (76.2% have post-secondary credentials) to the renowned post-secondary institution hubs (comprising Trent University, Fleming College, and Seneca College’s School of Aviation), many of the region’s core industries has the specialized workforce it needs.



Second, there’s Access: with a location that makes 7.68 million consumers and 3.72 million jobs reachable within a 120-minute drive, the region’s smack in the middle of potential.  


Third, there’s Value: by combining unique business support networks and the services offered through their business advisory centre, and programs like Starter Company Plus and Spark Mentorships & Grants with a remarkable livability factor (homes are 27% less expensive than the provincial average), the region drives its inhabitants toward prosperity – in every direction.



But while the pillars of PKED’s why narrative are undoubtedly attractive, it’s the philosophical foundation they’re built on that really sets them apart. 

An insatiable thirst for community-wide innovation. A relentless pursuit for environmental – and economic – sustainability. Simply put, Peterborough & the Kawarthas has a driving spirit that makes its value hard to replicate. And it’s that spirit that promises decision-makers and investors a location that’s bound to grow with them.

The How

To Keenan and her team, that spirit – that “innovation and sustainability lens” – is the differentiator that their audience needs to hear. So when it comes to communicating the PKED story, it has to be front and centre. 

And on the brand new website, it is.

“Naturally,” overlaid on a wide snapshot of trees and water at sunset. “Innovative,” added onto a zoomed-in still of a lively blue lake.

 The site’s opening section – altogether reading Naturally Innovative – is a masterclass in conveying character through visuals. By contrasting two potent images, fonts, and words, visitors are pulled into the dual-pronged ethos before they’ve even started to scroll.

And when they do start to scroll, the data that meets them is just as aligned. From being forecasted to see economic growth of 26% by 2030 to being named the #1 city in Ontario for water-tech startups, the evidence is clear: this is where innovation and sustainability intersect.

 The Community

With such a distinctive spirit driving the region, it’s crucial for PKED to attract the organizations and talent that won’t dilute it – but push it forward. Targeting community cohesion, Keenan and her team, in collaboration with an impressive group of like-minded community organizations and institutions, have focused on two tactics.

First, building channels – like business accelerator programs and incredible research facilities –that connect the region to the companies and people that, as she describes, “speak our language.” Second, making sure the successes of locals are promoted, so whoever’s looking, student or executive, can visualize the waiting opportunity.


On the website, there’s an ever-growing list of press that speaks to the prosperity available for the like-minded. There’s the recent profile of entrepreneurs – in sectors like eco-friendly cleaning and sustainable farming – who found success through regional programming. There’s the deep-dive of an outdoor recreation retailer that changed its offerings to better reach its environmental goals.

With ventures like the recently-launched Green Economy Peterborough – which offers local businesses a network program to help them hit their sustainability targets – and admission to the nationwide Circular Cities& Regions Initiative, it’s clear that Peterborough & the Kawarthas has consciously been setting its residents up to learn, and achieve, more.

But for Keenan and her team, the purpose of highlighting those achievements hasn’t been to dictate a top-down way of doing things. It’s been to attract residents, visitors, businesses, and investors who have an aligned vision. And, since the region has long been known as a destination for tourism, the publicity also works to update its image in the public’s eye.

So it’s not just known as a standalone centre for recreation or for commerce – but as a landscape built on its capabilities for both.

 The Challenge

 The greatest challenge facing Keenan and her team has been redefining their region, so those with corporate – not cottage –interest take notice. “We’ve always been a recognized destination for tourism,” she says, “but what we didn’t have was that same momentum for business.”

In order to increase awareness of the year-round opportunity, they set out to build a website that was captivatingly simple.

First, there was the website handle. Instead of using the organization’s name (which “didn’t help people understand what we were trying to achieve,” Keenan admits), the team opted for Invest PTBO – amore direct shorthand. “We wanted to make a big, bold splash,” she says of the site’s new name. “We wanted to tell the world: we’re open for business.”

Next, there was the website structure. Instead of dumping all of the information they had onto a couple of site pages, they worked tirelessly to create organized branches of intel. 

“We recognized that we had so many folks – small business startups, site selectors, major corporations – who could be coming to the table,” Keenan says. By designing a site that was both comprehensive and tidy, those audiences could have meaningful journeys.

Finally, there was the Localintel technology. Embedded throughout the site, the tools – ranging from Market Advantages to Logistics & Accessibility Advantages to Talent Pipeline – grant site visitors access to data that’s actually meaningful to their inquiries.  

According to Keenan, the tools make a real difference for decision-makers used to being overloaded with insight. Now, they’re empowered to take what they need – “at whatever depth they want it.”

 The Future

From its compelling narrative to its bold website to its ongoing circulation of success stories as evidence to support the region’s key advantages, PKED has enacted a marketing strategy that’s competitive in today’s market and true to its community.

Its quest for innovation is prominent. Its commitment to sustainability is ingrained. But its pride for local achievement – celebrating its residents’ collaborations, initiatives, and growth – is just as clear. 


And while each of those outcomes was a definite target of Keenan and her team’s strategic undertaking, the full vision of what PKED hopes to achieve for its region hasn’t quite been realized yet. 

“We’re looking at growing the future of clean technology,” Keenan proclaims. 

Though it might sound like a tall order for a slice of idyllic cottage country, in actual fact, Peterborough & the Kawarthas is already on its way to actualizing it – including welcoming a growing number of new and sustainably-minded tourism experiences.

It’s seen major corporate investment from multinational names like Coca-Cola and Rolls-Royce. It’s seen major industry expansion for trades like aviation and small business. Its campuses are pumping out groundbreaking startups. Its residents are using each other to foster success. The collaborative small business ecosystem is widely known as one of the area’s greatest strengths, where competitors see each other as friends instead of foe.

 “I think,” Keenan says, “the future is very bright.” 

But as the region gains more and more steam as a sought-after site for decision-makers, the next challenge facing PKED won’t be advertising its appeal. It’ll be retaining it. “It’s going to be about managing growth,” she explains. “To make sure we’re keeping our personality.” 

While PKED works to attract the right investments, Keenan and her team have made one thing clear: no matter the rate of progress, they’ll never stop chasing sustainable prosperity through innovation. 

On their terms.

We trust you’ve found this article useful. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to us should you have any questions.

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