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Leaving the Station

Analogies comparing a life and career to the movements of a train are not difficult to find, but such a comparison seems rather appropriate when it comes to the Region of Waterloo’s Bryan Stortz.

Stortz is leaving the building as the Region’s Director of Communications after 20 years of service, but the train he helped bring to the area will go on down the line a good many more years to come.

The Region’s Light Rail Transit (LRT) is now operational, with Phase 2 planning and fundraising efforts well underway. For Stortz, the LRT is one of the pinnacles of his career and the project has always been something close to his heart.

He was there, in fact, at the very beginning, long before the first spike went into the ground.

“I was there the very first day the line was drawn on the map,” says 63-year-old Stortz. “Yes, I’ve been involved with the project from literally Day One when Gerry Thompson drew lines on a map in our boardroom and came up with this idea.”

Light Rail Transit – for those have previously never heard of the LRT – is a transportation system based on electrically-powered light rail vehicles (LRV) that operates on a track in a segregated, right of way. Multiple LRVs, or cars, can be coupled together to form a train.

The next part of the LRT plan, Stortz recalls, was going after the funding for the ambitious new project that would literally connect the dots across Waterloo Region, from Kitchener to Waterloo and on to Cambridge.

Of course, there have been a few bumps and grinds along the way from the project’s start to near-completion, but the journey was worth it, he says.

“It isn’t just a transportation system,” Stortz says. “It has fundamentally reshaped Kitchener-Waterloo and it will reshape Cambridge once Stage 2 is initiated down there.”

There is no denying there have been headaches, especially for small businesses along the construction route where the rail lines were installed but, thankfully, there have been more highs than lows, he says.

“It’s done all the things that we dreamed of it doing and more. It’s caused this amazing development boom in the core area,” he says. “So, if you look down the tracks, there are cranes everywhere, even now as we’re coming out of a pandemic. I live downtown and I can see cranes across the skyline. That’s remarkable.”

Stortz also points out that another important element to the LRT project for the surrounding rural and farming community: “It’s allowed us to have progressive planning policies that have protected the very important rural areas of Waterloo Region.”

He recalls one area which he had visited just earlier in the day:

“The countryside line is there: on one side you have houses and on the other side you have farms which will be farms for 100 years or more.”

If we didn’t have a compelling or visionary transportation system that caused the Region’s development to be built up in established areas, he says, then there could be pressure to “sprawl” into the countryside and that was never a viable option. That responsibility, and pressure, to protect the countryside, of course, led to more planning and discussion.

“Public transportation fundamentally creates equity in the community,” Stortz says. “But it has also created a lot of conflict throughout the core areas and (again), when you go back to the public meetings we had, they were contentious.”

Stortz also recalls that many companies and high-tech leaders and investors all indicated that if (the Region) didn’t have something special or important, such as an LRT, “then we would be like anybody else.”

“We would not have any sort of compelling reason for them to be here.”

That has given the community a leg up, Stortz says, and put it in a stronger position when attracting investment in companies and talent because – let’s face it – that talent could set up digs anywhere else in the world, not just here.

“So, we had to create a community here that they would want to be a part of, and we did that,” Stortz says. “My name and number was on our website when we approved the project way back when and I can tell you that I received calls every couple of days from non-local, usually Toronto-based realtors, lawyers and developers asking, ‘Can you tell me if there is going to be a station at X or Y or, can you confirm that this property is next to the light rail line?’”

Once he confirmed it either way, Stortz recalls, they then said, “’That’s all we wanted to know.’”

That, he says, was the rationale that developers and investors needed to make the decision to commit to this community.

“If you drive through the core – and you put it in the context of a debilitating pandemic – it’s really busy out there,” he says, adding that it’s truly encouraging to look downtown and see all those cranes at work.

University students, as just one example, can attend the University of Waterloo (UW), live in downtown Kitchener and catch the train and be at UW in 15 minutes.

Stortz was also quite familiar with the necessary disruptions to everyday life at the ground level, as he lived through the construction every day, at work and also on his own neighbourhood street in Kitchener.

That, as well, was also part of the planning process, to minimize disruptions to everyday life as much as possible.

“We had a really good team on our side working with businesses throughout,” Stortz says. “You know there are issues, but we worked really hard to make sure that (people) never lost access to their driveways and so on.”

Another important point Stortz makes is the fact that, “we weren’t just putting tracks down.”

They were also replacing centuries-old infrastructures, such as old sewer pipes and water lines, all of those things under the road that few of us ever see or think about.

The roads, Stortz says, were going to be torn up anyway so it just made sense that the water and sewer work would be done simultaneously, keeping in mind that new condominium and office buildings were going up and the system needed to be upgraded anyway to accommodate the increased demand.

“You couldn’t put 21st Century development on 19th Century services,” Stortz says. “It was disruptive. No one’s going to deny that but, at the end of the day, you won’t have to patch those roads for a very long time.”

Although Stortz might consider his time spent working on the LRT to be the highlight of his 20-year career as the Region’s Director of Communications, there are quite a number of memorable stops along the way.

Stortz’s career has taken him quite literally to both sides of the track, from his time as a City of Kitchener councillor (1988-1994) to being elected as a Region of Waterloo councillor (1991-1994), before he worked in the communications side of things.

During those years, Stortz served on a number of key city and regional committees, including Finance and Administration, Planning and Economic Development, and Parks and Recreation.

He also helped resolve a number of neighbourhood issues and brought together, “police, neighbours, and landlords to develop strategies in the downtown’s successful campaign to rid itself of drug-related crime.”

He also worked on preparations for Queen Elizabeth II’s 2010 visit to Waterloo, he recalls. He didn’t get to meet the Queen, he says, “but I was really close.” Another highlight, he is proud to say, was being part of the group that welcomed the Syrian refugees to the area in 2015.  As well, he was also involved with the opening of the Region’s airport and part of the team that “pitched for service to come to our airport.”

Stortz still chuckles as he recalls a “chance” meeting he had with former Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, who was in town to announce federal funding for the LRT.

“He was actually a nice guy,” says Stortz, laughing at the memory of the staged funding announcement event, complete with a bus for the visiting dignitaries from Ottawa.

Stortz describes himself as a lifelong Liberal and, “I’m on the bus with all of these Conservative MPs.”

“So,” he recalls, “the Prime Minister’s motorcade pulls up and Mr. Harper comes around into the van and the first person to meet him in Kitchener and greet him is me.”

Stortz said he welcomed Harper to Kitchener, gracefully, of course but he laughs still as he recalls that all of the MPs on board knew Stortz was a Liberal.

During his time, Stortz was also a PhD candidate and teaching assistant at UW between 1991 and 1993. From 1995-1996 he served as managing editor of a now-defunct community newspaper, Kitchener This Week. Stortz helped launch the successful weekly paper and was responsible for many things, including managing the editorial department of a publication that “was often first among local media to break major stories.”

Perhaps that firsthand experience has given Stortz a unique perspective into the inner workings of the news media, as well.

Stortz has nothing but praise for the local media and their handling of the LRT and other issues facing the Region, and most especially the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. He could not be happier with the way the media has responded to the issues.

“I would say,” says Stortz, “that the local media has been nothing short of outstanding during the last seven months or so as we’re into the pandemic. They have – whether it’s CTV, The Record or radio stations – all risen above the best that you could expect.”

Stortz says he’s had many conversations with the heads of newsrooms over the years and the one thing that remains consistent in his memory is that, “they (always) said to me that they don’t care if they get the story first; they just want to make sure the news gets out.”

Working with the media to get the word out, and to be transparent has always been one of the Region’s and Stortz’s main priorities in dealing with daily issues that come up.

“Working with (them),” he says, “we got the information to the community that (people) needed in order to protect themselves, to make decisions for themselves and their families.”

Stortz says his and the Region’s relationship with local media, “has been nothing short of outstanding,” especially during the Covid crisis. “I can’t say enough good things about the media.”

He also can’t say enough good things about his friends and colleagues at the Region over the last 20-30 years that he’s been around, either as a councillor or a communications professional.

“I work for an organization that I truly believe in,” says Stortz, “with amazing people.”

Stortz’s list of “amazing people,” includes everyone from former Regional Chair Ken Seiling to current Chair, Karen Redman, former CAO Gerry Thompson and current CAO, Bruce Lauckner and his many colleagues at the Regional offices.

“They are individuals with impeccable integrity,” he says. “There has never been a day when I’ve gone to work that I haven’t been proud of where I worked, who I worked with and who I worked for.”

Stortz’s career will reach the end of the line on October 30 and when he leaves, he will take “great memories of working with amazing people.”

He describes them as “just a great bunch, who are talented, committed, and passionate about the Region.”

So, what comes next?

Well, he and wife, Angela did plan to travel to Barbados once again this year, but the pandemic has left that train at the station for the time being. Instead, they will likely visit Collingwood as a replacement vacation.

As a lifelong community-minded person – as well as a professional – Stortz’s post retirement will also see him continue to serve as Vice-chair of the Board of Hospice Waterloo Region. He looks forward to spending more time working on getting the hospice up and running in Waterloo by year’s end.

“It was an easy ‘yes’ when I was asked a few years ago (to serve on the hospice board),” Stortz recalls, adding his sister, sadly suffered an untimely death a few years ago due to breast cancer. “Hospice was an easy one to say ‘yes’ to. (At the time), in the months leading up to her death, I thought that no person, no family should ever go through that time without proper support, so that’s the reason I began with hospice.”

As the Hospice of Waterloo Region’s website states (https://www.hospicewaterloo.ca/capital-campaign/ ): “While there were some initial concerns about the impact of the pandemic, construction of The Gies Family Centre has moved forward over the past few months without interruption. With an expected opening in December of this year, our vision for this one-of-a-kind facility in the region is coming to fruition.”

As Stortz says, “It’s going to be a great addition to our community.”

Stortz also volunteers at St. Mary’s Church and plans to do more volunteering for worthwhile causes once his “retirement” settles in. Stortz’s 23-year-old son, Tony is currently the church’s community outreach person/coordinator and has just finishing his undergraduate degree at the University of Guelph.

Tony will be 24 on his dad’s final day at the Region.

Stortz had originally planned to retire about 2 ½ years ago, as he’d reached his “magic number” back then. He decided, however, to stick around for a couple of good reasons:

“I wanted to be there when the train started, so that got me to last year and then it looked like there was going to be a change of Regional government so I stuck around to be a part of that.”

Then, his boss – Mike Murray – retired in December when Stortz had planned yet again to leave.

“It just didn’t seem right for the two of us to leave the organization at the same time,” says Stortz and then, of course, Covid-19 hit. “So, Mike stayed longer. As an outstanding public servant, he stayed for several months longer to help the community through Covid.”

Stortz was also asked to stick around during the worst part of Covid, and then the new CAO came along and he was asked again – and agreed – to stay for a few more months to “help Bruce with this transition.”

“Bruce is settling just fine so I can go, knowing the Region’s in good hands.”

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