Cultivating growth, shore to shore

Nestled in the heart of Southwestern Ontario is a charming rural community, which is becoming increasingly known for its broadening diversity of business activity. Chatham-Kent, with a population of 104,000, is located just northeast of the Windsor-Detroit international border. Incorporated in 1998, through the amalgamation of 22 former municipalities, it is easily accessible from Highway 401, with competitive land costs that make it an extremely attractive destination for commerce.

The names Chatham and Kent were originally appointed by John Graves Simcoe, Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada in the late 1700s, in honour of the Earl of Chatham, William Pitt the Younger and the county of Kent, England. Lumbering was the first successful industry in Kent County, and once the terra firma was cleared Chatham was then developed as a marketing centre for the surrounding rich agricultural land.

From those early settlement days to today, the agricultural sector has been the most dominant and stable of all industries and has served the local economy exceptionally well. More than 70 different crops are grown within the community that consists of 2,000-square kilometres of prime agricultural land, which is very flat and properly irrigated with all the requirements for a successful yield. Much of the product grown is available for fresh market opportunities on an international scale.

The Canadian Business Journal recently spoke with Chatham-Kent Mayor Randy Hope, Director of Economic Development, Michael Burton and Communications Officer, Community Development, Brian Worrall about the many burgeoning business opportunities within the municipality, and of course the always reliable agricultural sector.

“It’s more than a $3 billion industry in Chatham-Kent. Our crops are not grown in a lot of other places in Ontario or even the United States,” Mayor Hope reveals.

Ontario’s agri-food businesses export to 168 countries around the world including the United States. Asia and Europe are also premier destinations. According to figures from the Ontario government, every $10 million increase in agricultural exports creates 127 new jobs in the province.

In conjunction with farming are a number of parallel business sectors that are being focused upon by the economic development team, including food processing and manufacturing, which can obviously be assimilated as a direct value-added proposition for the robust agricultural foundation.

“We are also focused on an ag-related product area with chemicals, both biofuel and fertilizers. We are expanding in transportation, whether it is rail products or farm machinery equipment,” Burton says.

A significant amount of interest has been shown offshore in Canadian education, so the municipality is developing a programme in conjunction with the local school boards and colleges and universities to increase the influx of foreign students who are coming into the community.

“For most people, when you say the words ‘knowledge-based’ they think about sitting behind a computer and analyzing things. Knowledge-based economies are incredibly important and that’s where the scientists and research and development are so significant. When you’re dealing with food-added value, you need a technology base in order to do that,” Hope says.

In addition to the plethora of world-class crops being grown and processed, the commercial fishing industry is also well-established in Chatham-Kent and in fact boasts the largest freshwater fishing industry in the world, with abundant exports of perch and pickerel to destinations as far away as overseas.

Wind Energy

The geographical characteristics of Chatham-Kent with an abundance of open, flat land, makes it an ideal location for wind turbines and energy generation. In fact, the municipality accounts for about 25% of all wind turbines in the province and 12% of the entire country.

“We are producing more than 881 megawatts of power through wind,” Hope confirms.

A stringent requirement for working with postsecondary education and creating the expertise on the maintenance and technology sides of the wind industry is also at the forefront. Even with Chatham-Kent’s biogas and biofuels initiatives, specialized workers are required.

“We are in the knowledge-based end of it, dealing with the expertise required in those fields of opportunity,” Hope continues.

St. Clair College, the Ridgetown campus of the University of Guelph, the University of Windsor, the University of Western Ontario and Fanshawe College are all within relatively close distance and so the educational opportunities are quite regional in scope.

“With so much being within a one-hour radius, it adds a lot of flexibility to the opportunities around education,” Burton adds.

Attracting Commerce

Chatham-Kent spans a large geographic area, and in fact is the largest municipality by area in Southwestern Ontario and the 12th-largest in Canada. Super connectivity is important for the region via highway, rail and water, all of which lead to direct access to the United States. Chatham-Kent already serves as the headquarters of Union Gas, a natural gas utility and Spectra Energy company.

For domestic and Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), Chatham-Kent has key assets including location; abundant natural gas, a trading hub; serviced industrial land; a competitive and experienced workforce; ready access to the U.S. market; an established advanced-manufacturing supply-chain; key logistics options; and competitive corporate tax rates. A unique aspect about Chatham-Kent is that it has just one tier of government, which positively impacts on its ability to attract investors. There is one mayor and 17 councillors representing 2,400-square kilometres of land from shore to shore.

A section of the municipality called Community Attraction and Promotion works to make the opportunities known to potential residents of Chatham-Kent, or for people who left in their youth and are looking for an opportunity to come back. These people include young people, immigrants and active retirees. Community Attraction and Promotion assists the mayor’s office and council by communicating the message to the public through mass media.

“Aptly one of the programs is called Welcome Back to Chatham-Kent,” Worrall mentions. “It’s an outreach program that makes contact with people who are looking for opportunities in a community of Chatham-Kent’s profile. There are a number of outreaches by that section of the municipality.”

There is also something known as the Chatham-Kent Community Leaders’ Cabinet where the private sector, community groups and government agencies get together to work on a strategic focus on how to grow Chatham-Kent and be viable and also reduce costs while at the same time provide the highest quality of life for citizens. In the spirit of working together, the CKCLC has established a number of partnerships with community groups.

Mayor Hope breaks down the development of the municipality into two key, fundamental areas: business and social. He notes how important the reliable and credible workforce is within the community and as such there is a strong commitment from the Mayor’s office, council and the Economic Development department to drive that unlimited potential for success.

“When you come into our community we don’t forget about you,” he says. “We are a green community. We are looking future reliability and sustainability of energy costs and we are on the forefront of dealing with that.”

A new enterprise can be unveiled in any one of Chatham-Kent’s communities, which are all within a 20-minute radius. There is the option of living near the lake, a small town or one of the larger populated centres. It’s the chance to be successful in business without the hustle and bustle of the rat race of a large city.

“Quality of life is important to foreign investors because they want to know how they’re being greeted and treated in the community. There are no traffic jams, and the cost of housing is so much cheaper than other regions, but the standard of housing is superb. It’s about living the dream without breaking the bank,” Mayor Hope says. “Where can you get office space between $10- $18 per square foot or factory space for between $3 and $10 per square foot?”

“The price of real estate here is extraordinarily attractive,” Worrall adds.

Business Retention and Expansion is at the cornerstone of an effective economic development strategy. Achieving results in assisting an existing employer to access new markets and to expand, is more effective and predictable than attracting new investment to the community. Chatham-Kent has shown tremendous resiliency in bouncing back by essentially cutting its unemployment rate in half from 15.7% during the global economic downtown in 2008 to 7.9% at the end of 2015.

“Our tax rates are very competitive and we have the lowest water rates in Ontario,” Burton says.

Small Business Centre

The Small Business Centre provides a number of critical services to entrepreneurs, whether they are currently operating or are prospective business owners. Planning services, marketing advice and professional consulting services on business planning, cash flow and financial management are just some of the ways in which the Small Business Centre is able to assist in the development and advancement of commerce opportunities within Chatham-Kent.

“They also do follow-ups with the businesses in about six to eight months to see how things are going and how they might be able to provide advice on tweaking their approach,” Burton says. “It’s partially funded by the province and partially funded by us and is a rather critical element for our economy regarding organic growth for local business.”

There is also a young entrepreneur’s program to acquire seed funding for robust enterprise ideas. Those young people need to submit a business plan. The values of the opportunities of the plan are judged because only a limited number are accepted to the program.

Tourist Attractions

Two alluring provincial parks can be found within Chatham-Kent’s boundaries: Wheatley and Rondeau. A piece of Carolinian forest is preserved in the Clear Creek Forest, and the lakes draw boaters and anglers from far and wide. Most of the communities host festivals that focus on specific areas of interest, which serves as an excellent tourism draw from the point of view of going to small-town Canada and enjoying some of the festivities that they have throughout the summer. It’s hoped a sizable spike in American attendance will be recognized in 2016 with the low Canadian dollar.

“You tend to see Chatham-Kent jam-packed with things to do in the summer months particularly, as well as access to the two lakes and marinas in the area and to draw in U.S. tourists,” Burton says.

Chatham-Kent is well known for the Buxton Museum National Historic Site, which draws a lot of interest and is open year round. One of the biggest reunions of people of African-Canadian descent, who are descendants of the original settlers, occurs on the Labour Day weekend. There is also the picturesque Thames River, where many people can be found picnicking in the summer.

“We don’t have a Canada’s Wonderland or a Niagara Falls as a destination but a lot of our tourism is based on outdoor activity and enjoying the character and nature of the community,” Burton says.

Looking to the Future

Over the next five years Mayor Hope, Burton and Worrall each expect to see continued growth and prosperity. Mayor Hope would like to see the population of Chatham-Kent reach 120,000 along with an added diversity of new technologies, whether it’s in agriculture, automotive or another burgeoning business sector.

“All the systems and infrastructure is in place to handle the increase to 120,000 people,” Mayor Hope says.

Mayor Hope, Burton and the economic development team have had incredible success in working with existing companies for the purpose of promoting and developing expansion. In the next five years Burton would like to see 10 new companies join the municipality. From the Mayor’s perspective, he has put a direct focus on foreign direct investment, particularly because of the notable opportunities in Asia as well as companies looking to North American expansion. In that regard, Burton and his economic team have been working diligently to attract interest in established companies based in the U.S., China, South Korea, India and parts of Europe.

“There has been about $195 million in new capital investment in buildings and equipment in the past year and that is creating a significant growth in the number of jobs available in the community,” Burton says.

“All we ask is a chance to demonstrate who we are,” Mayor Hope adds. “The business and community savvy that we have and the leadership we provide is the best.”

Chatham-Kent is guided by strong, effective leadership, which is essential to attain and retain economic growth. Randy Hope has been the mayor for nine years. In addition to his political savvy he has tremendous background experience in business. Burton is a seasoned veteran who has worked in economic development in a number of communities, but says Chatham-Kent is by far the most aggressive in terms of delivering and backing up its promises when it comes to new and existing investments, and he gives a lion’s share of the credit to the leadership shown by Mayor Hope.

“He’s the most involved, most determined and most aggressive mayor when it comes to delivering on promises made to new investors,” Burton states. “That’s an acknowledgment we’ve gotten from several ministers at the provincial level and from investors as well. We take great pride in that kind of reputation.”