On what was once farm land, seeds for future growth are being sown at the Orillia campus of Lakehead University.
The County of Simcoe recently committed $15 million to help the university reach its goals which will include a new academic building at the 500 University Ave. campus.
“We are so so thankful for this commitment from the county because it really confirms the nature of our relationship with them, and the fact that we will continue to grow in the way that Simcoe County needs that to happen,” said Linda Rodenburg, the interim principal of the Orillia campus.
Since arriving in Orillia in 2006, Lakehead has grown from 101 students to over 2,100, and Rodenburg said a recent study confirmed the university is operating at capacity.
Carried out with Urban Strategies, the 12-month study helped the university lay out its plans for future growth, including meeting its goal of accommodating 3,500 students by 2032.
The study determined the university will need to build three new academic buildings at its west Orillia campus to meet its needs and goals for the future.
Rodenburg said the university is working on a campus concept that “ensures that the heart of our campus (is) a thriving space for our students,” noting that the university has far more space to work with than many other post-secondary institutions.
“The recommendation from Urban Strategies is that we are going to need three buildings of this size, of the size of Simcoe Hall, in order to meet our needs as we grow, so so they are suggesting to us that we consider a setup that really allows for those three buildings to work in relation to one another,” Rodenburg said.
"What they helped us understand is that, as a campus, we have a really unique opportunity to build out in a way that is meaningful and interconnected."
Rodenburg said the concept includes ideas to connect the campus to trailways that exist through the city, all the way to the downtown core, where the university continues to have a presence in the Andrew Street building that also is home to city hall.
At the moment, however, the focus is on the first new building.
“The campus growth that we are anticipating is within a five- to ten-year period, and we know we need a new building here on campus within that timeline in order for us to be able to continue to grow,” she said.
Each new building, Rodenburg estimates, will cost between $30-40 million.
“We are focusing very much on this first new building, and how we can ensure that this new building meets our emergent needs in a way that allows for us to grow in a good way and meet the needs of the county, while also making sure that we we have we have ideas about how we expand to fill those other buildings going forward,” she said.
Although the timeline and fine details have yet to be finalized, some of the needs for the new building include a dedicated Indigenous space and additional instructional spaces.
As for funding, that, too, is still being finalized.
"We will be seeking philanthropic support from individuals, companies, and foundations, as well as industry partners and other partnerships," Rodenburg said.
"This is also an opportunity for Lakehead to look at how we partner in innovative and creative ways with community groups, organizations, and industry on all sorts of things, including programs, funding, and space. This is very important as we plan the vision for the Orillia campus," Rodenburg explaind.
Conversations will be taking place throughout the university, with local municipalities, the provincial government, community members, and community partners, Rodenburg said, as the university looks to implement its plans for campus expansion in a way that aligns with its goals and with "the broader interests of students, faculty, and the local community."
“We are at this incredibly exciting time in Lakehead’s trajectory for growth because we get to have real conversations about who we want to be, how we want to focus our programs, how we want to grow,” she said.
“We're talking to everyone right now about what their vision for Lakehead is, so that we can actually align those different things with where we grow and how we use this opportunity for the new building.”
Mayor Don McIsaac said the investment from the county comes as “welcome news,” noting the university benefits not only Orillia but the surrounding area as well – in terms of economic development, talent development and retention, and more.
With more than 2,500 alumni living in Simcoe County, and nearly half the student population from the area, McIsaac said the university is a “wonderful community partner” that plays “an important role in the community.”
“It is a great opportunity to have Lakehead in our backyard,” the mayor said. “As Orillia is growing, having post-secondary educational opportunities helps our youth stay in the community and makes us a progressive location for students from other parts of the province and country, and even internationally."
He said the school also provides "important continuing education for life-long learning” opportunities.
“Growing programs, increasing the student population, and potential economic impacts will help continue building Orillia and the surrounding community as a progressive destination for the future," said McIsaac.