WOODSTOCK – The Ontario government is asking municipalities to identify massive tracts of land to give the province a leg up in attracting large manufacturing plants, an initiative an auto industry leader says is “much needed.”
JONATHAN JUHA, London Free Press
November 28, 2019
As part of the project, a first in Canada and called the “Job Site Challenge,” the province plans to identify “mega sites” – between 200 and 600 hectares – across Ontario that are shovel-ready, serviced and properly zoned for heavy industrial use that can be showcased to potential investors in an effort to compete for investments with other jurisdictions in North America.
“A lot of time the concern we hear is that it takes too long to get projects off the ground in Ontario,” said Prabmeet Sarkaria, Ontario’s associate minister of small business, speaking at Toyota’s plant in Woodstock, where the announcement was made Thursday.
“This is going to give us an opportunity to market (these sites) to the world and show that we are serious about driving new investment in Ontario.”
The initiative is modelled on similar programs in New York, Tennessee and Alabama that have proven successful at attracting new investment.
Though the project on its won’t change investment trends in the auto sector, having a list of potential sites available for investment will improve the province’s chances at landing large projects, said Flavio Volpe, president of the Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Association.
“If you are going to compete for new investment, this is table stakes and we haven’t had it to this point,” he said.
“This is what other jurisdictions do, especially the ones that directly compete with us. If we are going to compete, we can’t generically say (to manufactures), ‘Come to Ontario,’ when Tennessee is saying, ‘Here’s a 1,500-acre site, fully serviced, multi-model,’” Volpe said.
“This is absolutely needed and I’m glad we are doing it.”
The province will accept proposals from municipalities from Jan. 1 to March 31, 2020. The government’s goal is to begin showcasing the sites next fall.
The province will use different criteria to evaluate the proposed locations, key among them is that they are serviced or serviceable by utilities and have transportation networks, among other support infrastructure.
Though the auto sector remains the main target, chosen sites could also be used to attract manufacturing projects in other sectors such as aerospace, medical devices, pharmaceuticals and agri-food, Sarkaria said.
Finding sites of the scale the province is looking for, however, may be more challenging than people think and that’s why getting a head start is key to landing investment, said Brad Hammond, development officer with Woodstock’s economic development agency.
“The work and effort that goes into putting a site like this together is monumental, and the sooner you can start thinking about that the better,” he said.
Hammond was part of a team that helped put together the 400-hectare site for the Toyota plant that opened in 2008.
He pointed out, for instance, that the current site was first divided into 27 properties, and servicing the land required an investment of $30 million.
But besides places like the former 280-hectare St. Thomas Ford plant that closed in 2011, there are very few properties readily available that could match the Woodstock plant, Hammond said.
“You won’t find 1,000 acres under single ownership anywhere in the province, certainly not in Southern Ontario . . . that ticks all the boxes, so the sooner people start thinking about it, whether it is communities or the province, the better,” he said, adding the economic impact that landing a project of Toyota’s magnitude creates in a community is massive.
“The benefit from having a large facility like this, to call it gigantic is still an understatement.”