He had to find the Gator.
Niagara College President Dr. Dan Patterson was eager to show his guests the restored wetlands along the escarpment behind the college’s Niagara-on-the-Lake Campus. According to Patterson, the two wetlands were used as sewage lagoons, collecting the waste from the adjacent horse stables in the time when Garden City Raceway stood on the land that is now the site of an outlet mall. To get there, he needed the John Deere Gator.
With construction of the new Marotta Family Innovation Complex nearly completed, the parking lot behind the campus was being rerouted and resurfaced. So it took some time for Patterson to find the utility vehicle.
On the quest to locate it, Patterson led his guests on an impromptu tour of Niagara’s Food and Wine Institute, an impressive array of clean, high-tech, modern commercial kitchens buzzing with activity, with professors leading students through practical lessons and lectures.
In every hallway and at every door, invariably a student or staff member would step up with a big smile to greet the president. It’s clear Patterson is not the kind of administrator who spends all of his time in his office. As the figurehead of the college, he is its biggest, most vociferous cheerleader. And his love of the students and staff seems genuine.
Once he had located the Gator, Patterson got behind the wheel, leading his guests through the construction zone and off toward the escarpment. Finding the pathway to the wetlands blocked by construction, Patterson would not be deterred from achieving his goal.
The Gators were parked, and he enthusiastically guided his charges along the trail, stopping briefly to say hello to a group of students harvesting honey as part of Niagara’s Commercial Beekeeper program.
The wetlands, by the way, were beautiful.
As the 2019/2020 school year begins, Dr. Dan Patterson knows this will be a bit of a different year for him. That’s because, back in May, 2019, he announced he would be retiring this coming June.
With more than 25 years at the helm of the college by that time, he will be one of the longest-serving college or university presidents in the country. Under his leadership, Niagara College has undergone a complete transformation. Nowhere is that more evident than at the NOTL campus.
Twenty-five years ago, Niagara College ran 13 different campuses across Niagara, including the main campus in Welland, the Maid of the Mist Campus in Niagara Falls, and the Welland Vale Campus, which was housed in a 19th century factory.
Working alongside the various level of governments, it was decided the wise choice would be to locate a new campus along the QEW corridor, consolidating all the smaller sites into one.
Known by many as the Glendale campus, the one-time farmland was purchased by the college about 21 years ago. According to Patterson, many farmers had tried to work the land, but the soil conditions were too tough to make any kind of profit. So an agreement for a 25-year plan was struck with the University of Guelph’s School of Architectural Landscaping. Their students and professors would be involved in rebuilding the soils, designing and managing the 133 acres that now house the campus.
Many of the programs at the NOTL campus centre on what Patterson refers to as agri-business. Looking at a list of some of the programs housed at the campus proves that point.
The Wine Visitor and Education Centre is set up to greet visitors to the region, almost as a welcome centre for those wishing to further explore Niagara’s wine country. The campus also houses the teaching brewery, distillery and winery, all producing award-winning products that are sold on campus.
The Benchmark Restaurant offers an ever-changing menu of food prepared and served by college students under the tutelage of professors with years of experience under their aprons. The Niagara College Teaching Greenhouse opens its doors to the public seven days a week, offering annuals, perennials and seasonal plants at reasonable prices. And, of course, there is the new Commercial Cannabis post-graduate program, with the college being amongst the first in Canada to offer this.
The new 49,000 square foot Marotta Family Innovation Complex will support the many agri-business programs. It will include agri-food research and innovation laboratories, and an incubation space for business. This is a huge step toward furthering Niagara College’s reach into the community, says Patterson.
Reflecting on his years as college president, the relationship with community is an important one for Patterson.
Through his tenure, he and the college board have always strived to link Niagara’s programs with the community. Many of its programs have advisory committees, comprised of key industry stakeholders, who provide guidance and direction for curriculum and decision-making.
He also points to the college’s involvement in charitable pursuits through its Many Hands Project, part of its post-graduate Events Management Program, and the Construction Program’s participation in a number of Habitat for Humanity home builds over the years.
Patterson acknowledges, though, that there have been some growing pains. Since the Niagara-on-the-Green subdivision was built across the road from the campus, many homeowners have grown frustrated over the years with absentee landlords and increased on-street parking. Patterson says the college has tried to develop a good relationship with the homeowners, beginning with a proactive door-to-door program in an effort to build trust and communication.
Relationships like this will become even more important in the future, as the Glendale District Plan takes shape. The college is working with the governments of St. Catharines, Niagara-on-the-Lake, and the Region, to ensure it continues to help guide the massive changes that will most likely come to this area.
With its location next to the QEW, the Region sees the Glendale lands as a flagship area that will house much of Niagara’s economic growth in the next few years.
There’s no doubt that much of the land surrounding the college will be developed. The Glendale District Plan gives all stakeholders potentially affected by future development a say in developing a framework for growth, policies and land-use designations.
Niagara College recently took ownership of the Niagara Business Corporate Centre next door to the NOTL campus. The three-storey building sits on a 33-acre parcel of land, which Patterson says is a key to the expansion of its agri-business programs.
For the time being, some of the college’s administration offices, along with 18 other businesses and agencies, will continue to use space in that building. But its future role will be decided upon as part of the vision for the college’s next 20 to 25 years.
Dr. Patterson says even though he won’t be guiding the college through the realization of that vision, he is happy that in his last year he will be involved in those discussions.
He says now is the right time for him to step down and to bring in new leadership. Once June, 2020 ends, he plans to pause for a stretch of time, and dedicate more time to his family, especially his wife Saundra. “This job is really a 24/7 job, and I have been very fortunate that she loves the college and feels a part of it as well.”
Following that pause, he hopes to write a bit about leadership and the lessons he has learned along the way. He currently sits on the national board of the Colleges and Institutes of Canada, and envisions his continued role there to be one of mentoring new college leaders, perhaps even his successor as Niagara College president.
As well, with his experience in building partnerships for the college in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, India, Jamaica and Brazil, he hopes to pursue more international opportunities for all of the colleges across Canada.
In his retirement, Patterson promises to continue to be an advocate for Niagara College and the college system in general.
“These are exciting times at colleges across the country. Going to college can open your mind to new ideas and new opportunities. We talk about it as advanced skills for employment. You get to experience innovation, you get to experience leading-edge technology, working with professors who are in the field. Niagara is an area where the college and university will have to play an even more important role in the future, as we look at trying to build more innovation for our many small- and medium-sized businesses.”
Will the next Niagara College president be as enthusiastic about the role as Patterson? It’s hard to believe in that possibility, but “Dr. Dan” will be right behind the new president, cheering him or her on.