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Here’s how Mayor Jeff Lehman got a struggling Rust Belt city to thrive

For stimulating the local economy and getting constituents housed and healthy, Mayor Jeff Lehman is one of Fast Company’s Most Creative People in Business.

Here’s how Mayor Jeff Lehman got a struggling Rust Belt city to thrive
[Illustration: Artur Tenczyński]
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Barrie, a city of 150,000, north of Toronto, was facing the same issues as Rust Belt cities south of its border when Jeff Lehman was first elected mayor nine years ago: declining manufacturing, little affordable housing, and a coming opioid crisis. But the former urban planner, now in his third term, has grown Barrie’s economy while boosting social services. Here’s how:

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  • By offering discounts on industrial development charges and low industrial taxes, Barrie set a city record last year for industrial building permits issued, and ended 2018 with unemployment below the national average. Many of these businesses have a tech bent, focusing on data management and security, robotics (for Tesla and SpaceX), and more. Investments in shared infrastructure—such as the $5 million committed to build an anechoic chamber at a local university (to test noise and electromagnetic emissions from cars and devices)—help attract talent. “Low-wage jobs don’t get you the Canadian dream anymore,” Lehman says.
  • As part of a new “housing first” policy for development, the city worked with nonprofits to convert an old motel into supported housing for people with mental health and addiction issues.
  • A community medicine program Lehman championed, which deploys paramedics with downtime to visit seniors at home, has reduced 911 calls by 75% and driven a 76% drop in ER visits by frequent users.
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