Conestoga College is making a $90 million bet on downtown Guelph, and in the process answering the great economic development conundrum for the next few years: What happens to the Co-operators’ building when they move to their new south end headquarters. Business and government dignitaries were drawn to City Hall today to hear the news, the culmination of years of planning and advocacy.
“It’s taken years and years of discussion, and this, from my point of view, is the first step and we really are going to embrace it,” said John Tibbits, president of Conestoga College at the Thursday’s announcement. “We recently purchased 139 Macdonell Street, and we hope that this new downtown campus will be open as early as September of ’25.”
According to Tibbits, the move plays into Conestoga’s strategy to make their campuses part of downtown communities like they’ve done in Kitchener and Cambridge, attracting students with a more complete school experience. The Macdonell Street campus will offer what Tibbits calls “a full service campus” including student space, recreation space and academic space, but being in the middle of a downtown gives students more options and opportunities like nearby, part-time work.
“Universities, colleges and trades are vital to bolstering economic development, and the students will help bring community vibrancy and supply the talent that we need for continued prosperity here in our city and beyond,” Mayor Cam Guthrie said.
“Adding a college campus to the core will really make our downtown shine. It’s going to help with our downtown economy, it’s going to create jobs, and it’s going to bring students and faculty to enjoy all of our shops, restaurants, cafes, arts, culture and more,” Guthrie added. “All of this will bolster a post-pandemic economic recovery.”
Conestoga is not a new entity in Guelph as the college has operated a campus in the city’s west end for years. Its current programs including many management and technical courses as well as a personal support worker program that puts students in the Village of Riverside Glen for hands on learning. Tibbits was clear that the campus on Speedvale Avenue is very much a part of his expansion plans.
“That building is mainly going to be theoretical classroom space with all kinds of labs and the bay doors are bigger over there,” he said. “There will be some trades, there’ll be some welding programming because there’s a big need for that, so you are absolutely guaranteed that we will not be selling Speedvale. In fact, we’ll be running shuttles because we intend to have a whole bunch of new programming out there.”
“We just spent $4 million upgrading the Speedvale campus so that’s not a good idea to spend $4 million and dump it,” Tibbits said.
For the $90 million spent on developing the downtown Guelph campus, Tibbits expects to draw about 5,000 full-time students plus a couple of hundred new faculty members. Along with some training in the trades, the new campus will focus as a hub for health and social services plus business management with the intention of attracting mature students, international students and people retraining.
So there will be a lot of new people coming to town, right? Not to ignore the elephant in the room, the Conestoga president addressed plans for the school to help with the creation of living space for students and not just learning space, but he also didn’t yet have firm details.
“We have some concept ideas. We just got approval last Friday and it took about five months to get approval from the provincial government, but there’s some concepts we’d like to look at,” Tibbits explained. “We know it’s an issue really across the whole region, so we will commitment to work with the City and work with economic development because we know we need houses, but it’ll be purpose built as we need it.”
The other elephant in the room? This deal was a long time in coming. For years, it was expected that Conestoga College would be part of the Baker District Redevelopment, but that never happened. Then, in 2019, there was an announcement about the construction of a downtown Cambridge campus that was expected to be a drain on the Guelph campus with much of the trades courses now running out of there.
In spite of that though, TIbbits, at the time, pledged in a Guelph Today article that “Within five or six years, we will have at least 5,000 students [at the Guelph campus].” So why this deal, and why now?
“Timing is everything,” said Guelph CAO Scott Stewart. “You do strategic plans on purpose because it lets you focus instead a scattergun approach to life. So we focused on the downtown, we focused on investing in the Baker District, we focused on building the garage back here, and we focused on all the investments we’re about to make over the next decade with millions of dollars in infrastructure. So there’s a lot of alignment that’s happened inside City Hall.”