John Godfrey had a vision for the Business Park

A nightclub or two in the Leaside Business Park, anybody? Staff photo.
A nightclub or two in the Leaside Business Park, anybody? Staff photo.

John Godfrey, Member of Parliament for Don Valley West from 1993 to 2008, died on December 18, 2023. He was an academic, politician, and headmaster in his multi-varied career, but he was always an innovator, organizer, and thought leader – and often ahead of his time. (According to Andrew Bevan, Chief of Staff Office of Chrystia Freeland, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance, Godfrey set up a website in 1994, only the second MP to do so.)

But beyond these achievements, he was also deeply supportive of Leaside. Full disclosure – I have admired John Godfrey, and have paid attention to his life and his contribution to society, since attending a conference that he was part of organizing, back in the early ’90s.

At that time the Leaside industrial district was suffering the loss of several major employers (Alcatel, Canada Wire, and Schlumberger, among them), and the Borough of East York experienced the associated loss of the commercial tax base.

As Leaside’s elected representative in Parliament, John Godfrey championed the idea of transforming the Leaside Business Park into a “new media village.” The basic idea was to promote the area as a home location for firms involved in the “new media,” such as video production, software, graphic arts, and digital imaging. These types of firms were experiencing rapid growth and were part of the “new economy.” 

The Economic Development Department of the Borough of East York conducted studies, which showed that the district already had a significant base of new media businesses to build on. The concept of developing a “new media village” received broad support from the local community, as well as key stakeholders representing local business, politicians, and bankers. The Borough of East York established a Community Development Corporation in 1995 with representatives from all three orders of government, the private sector, new media firms, banking, and land developers.

However, the Borough of East York’s amalgamation into the City of Toronto, effective January 1998, effectively meant the end of the Leaside Business Park’s tax revenue as the local economic driver. Tax bases of the individual former municipalities no longer mattered as much – instead, the global tax base across the new Toronto did. As a result, the new media village concept eventually moved to Liberty Village, which helped incubate the concentration of new media there, instead of Leaside.

So, what are the tangible outcomes of this effort for Leaside? I believe the coming of TELUS at 73 Laird Drive in 2000 was related to the installation of co-axial cable on Laird, but I have not been able to confirm this. As we all know, Laird East was allowed to be taken over by big box stores, and there have not been any other examples of data centres or significant new media firms in the park (there is a lot of storage, just not of data!). And apart from the pending construction of the innovation centre planned for Wicksteed at Clarke Street, there has been little to show. 

But let’s hear from John Godfrey himself, reflecting on the Leaside new media village experience, from a conversation I had with him and Andrew Bevan, his former Chief of Staff, in December 2020.

“I’m not sure how fully we understood the definition of ‘new media’ in those days, since Google, Facebook, Netflix, and the rest were in their infancy, or not yet born, but we correctly understood this to be the direction of the future, and this, rather than old-style manufacturing, warehousing, or big box retail, was where the high-quality jobs of the future would be created.

“If there was a lesson in all this, it is that with all the vision in the world, and even with some coordination, as we tried, with the three levels of government involved, it is hard to beat the money and market forces which ultimately prevailed. Twenty-five years later, it is interesting to speculate how an alternative scenario might have played out. Clearly something needed to happen in that area, but could we have done better, and how?”

John Godfrey – a good and faithful servant-leader! May he rest in peace.

About Geoff Kettel 223 Articles
Geoff Kettel is a community connector and advocate for “making places better”. He is currently Co-President of the Leaside Residents Association, Co-Chair of the Federation of North Toronto Residents‘ Associations (FoNTRA), member of the Toronto Preservation Board and Past Chair of the North York Community Preservation Panel. He writes a monthly column on heritage and planning in Leaside Life.