Municipality of Chatham-Kent
Incorporated in 1998 through the amalgamation of 22 former separate communities, the municipality of Chatham-Kent is located northeast of the Windsor-Detroit international border and has become widely known for its traditional agricultural base as well as a burgeoning diversified economy into other business sectors.
Easily accessible from Highway 401 in southwestern Ontario, Chatham-Kent has a marvelous geographic location, with easy access to the United States in one direction and Toronto in the other. The municipality has 88km of shoreline along Lake Erie and nearly 25km along Lake St. Clair.
The Canadian Business Journal recently spoke with Chatham-Kent Mayor Randy Hope about the successful economic development within the municipality. Now serving his third term, Mayor Hope has always taken a very hands-on approach to development and the hard work between he, council and municipal staff has paid off for the entire community of nearly 106,000 people.
“Our population is going up. Our unemployment numbers are better and everything is starting to look very positive with the number of people working,” he begins.
Michael Burton, director of investment attraction and government affairs for economic development with Chatham-Kent, confirms that the current unemployment figure is 5.5%, which is lower than the 5.8% provincial average and a brighter statistic than the national average of 6.5% unemployment. It’s a testament to the amazing resiliency in bouncing back by slashing the local unemployment rate by almost two-thirds from 15.7% during the global economic downturn.
This is the 20th anniversary of the incorporation of Chatham-Kent as a municipality and there are countless benefits in working together as a larger amalgamated community.
“From a strategic and planning perspective it allows you to plan on a regional scope. It makes it easier than having to deal with two-tier government systems. Everything is cohesive and blends together,” says Mayor Hope.
From an economic development standpoint the municipality is able to provide a full set of excellent options for enterprises that are looking to set up in the area and they can locate in whatever town they feel will best suit their needs while receiving the exact same business benefits. The fact there is just one body of government to deal with – that being the municipality itself – streamlines the process and ensures maximized efficiency and the elimination of any duplication of services as is often seen in other jurisdictions in southern Ontario.
“It is easier from an investment perspective and from an urban planning strategy approach. It also helps the smaller communities on infrastructure and operational costs,” says Mayor Hope.
Agriculture is more than a $3 billion industry with Ontario’s agri-food businesses exporting to nearly 170 countries. According to figures from the provincial government, every $10 million increase in agricultural exports creates 127 new jobs in the province.
“Chatham-Kent is the largest vegetable grower. Even although Leamington says it’s the tomato capital that refers to it being the processing capital. We are the largest growers of tomatoes. We grow more than 74 different products, and that’s not counting the new product – marijuana, which will make it 75,” confirms Mayor Hope.
Despite the immense achievements and economic success, the mayor believes there is still much more the municipality can accomplish in the agriculture domain, such as increasing the export opportunities that exist but also to take advantage of an excellent strategy that has been formulated in dealing with greenhouse growth.
“We are looking at major expansions around greenhouse industries, which create jobs,” he says. “You’re looking at potentially up to $700 million of investment that could occur and that’s huge when you start talking about food and agriculture. We are by far the most diversified in the crops we grow.”
In addition to the crops being grown in the fields, food processing is also a major contributor to the economy in Chatham-Kent. Diversifying into other business industries is always given its due consideration but never at the expense of those traditional sectors that have been so instrumental in driving the local economy for decades. There has always been a strong uninterrupted commitment to growing the core business sectors, namely agriculture and advanced manufacturing.
“When you look at the Municipality of Chatham-Kent we are 2,400-square km and of that 400-square km is urban setting, which means we have a lot of agricultural land. It’s very flat and we have the best soil in Ontario due in part to Lake Erie and Lake St. Clair and the excellent drainage we have here. We have more than 4,250km of drainage, which is the largest in Ontario,” remarks Mayor Hope.
The low cost of water is another added benefit for the community. In fact, Chatham-Kent is on a rate system whereby the more water used actually results in lower costs. It’s a platform not used in any other part of Ontario. Needless to say it’s attractive for food processors and anybody that uses an extraordinary amount of water. Equipped with eight water treatment plants it means each of the smaller communities always have an abundance of water, making them that much more attractive for businesses.
“After two years of pilot testing with our agricultural partners we are looking at irrigating fields using municipal-treated water, which then gives a higher value to the crops,” says Mayor Hope.
In addition to selling crops locally, regionally and nationally there is a significant expanding international market. Local businesses have been selling higher volumes of goods into South Korea and the municipality is now looking to move more products into China and other Asian and European markets in particular.
Chatham-Kent has the distinction of having the world’s largest fresh water commercial fishing industry in the community of Wheatley, with many fish exports sent to other jurisdictions.
“We are not only feeding the North American market. That’s why we get out and travel – to make sure that people understand what we grow and their quality. We’ve been in discussions with Peru because our growing seasons are opposite and are looking to expand economies both here and there,” explains Mayor Hope.
Year Two of an experimental project in growing ginger is also in progress, which is next to unheard of in North America. The University of Guelph Ridgetown campus is working with Chatham-Kent to ensure the scientific data is adequate and if so, it could lead to potentially growing ginger.
Mayor Hope also confirms the development of the Ag-related product area with chemicals, both biofuels and fertilizers continues in conjunction with the agriculture industry.
“There is the opportunity to make fertilizer but it’s not just about fertilizer; you create the steam, you create the heat, how do you integrate it? We’re currently doing that with Greenfield Global where we’re taking the corn and producing alcohol, utilizing the steam and CO2 and deploying it over to a greenhouse, which is increasing yield production and reducing operational costs,” he explains.
Greenfield Global is the leading specialty alcohols producer in Canada, with a focus on corn-based bulk industrial alcohol, packaged alcohol and fuel ethanol.
Bloomfield Business Park consists of about 74 acres of industrial land along Highway 401. It is being marketed as certified-ready land and available for companies to move into. Among those currently occupying space in the facility is a trucking company and the maintenance department of a wind industry enterprise. Chatham-Kent currently accounts for 25% of all the wind turbines in Ontario and 12% across the country with almost 500 in operation.
“I’m waiting for the updated figures, but at the last report we were producing enough energy for 334,000 homes,” notes Mayor Hope.
The industry continues to perform exceptionally well and it has been a robust revenue generator for the municipality, in addition to providing a number of people with excellent high-paying skilled jobs.
“We’re very proactive on renewable energies whether it’s solar or biogas. There are two more projects that are still to come online with the wind project side of things. We are very much in the knowledge-based end of it, dealing with the expertise required in those fields of opportunity,” continues the mayor.
The municipality collaborates on a number of projects and greenhouse strategies with Union Gas, whose parent company was changed two years ago when Calgary-based energy giant Enbridge Inc. acquired Houston-based Spectra Energy Corp. – the former parent company of Union Gas – for $37 billion.
“The other thing we are doing is looking at recyclable natural gas, taking methane and cleansing it and putting it into the system,” states Mayor Hope.
Excellent cases can be made in terms of opportunities to expand foreign direct investment within Chatham-Kent. As Mayor Hope says it’s like living the dream without breaking the bank from either a business or personal perspective.
“I’ve done some rough estimates and we could add about 50,000 people to Chatham-Kent and not have to spend one major dime on infrastructure in order to accommodate because we already have the infrastructure in place,” he says.
During his many meetings with business owners and executives, Mayor Hope always brings up how Chatham-Kent is in close proximity to vital economic markets. He also makes a point of upselling the labour force that is both flexible and viable in the 21st century and how there is continuous engagement with the nearby community colleges and universities to ensure proper preparation for the ever-evolving workplace and workforce.
“What I really emphasize is a local government that works with business, not just to bring them in but while they are here we work with them by going out and hustling business expansion and writing grant applications and landing contracts. We bring them into the family and work with them every step of the way,” emphasizes Mayor Hope.
Services and Recreation
The municipality of Chatham-Kent provides countless reasons for both setting up a business and settling down and raising a family. It’s an outstanding quality of life that includes numerous parks and recreational facilities and state-of-the-art healthcare services through the Chatham-Kent Health Alliance. The commute from work to home is a matter of minutes, without the hassles of traffic jams that plague many large urban centres.
“Having two lakes within close proximity you can enjoy fishing, swimming or boating with clean beaches. We promote safe neighbourhoods and safe communities. People want to know their children can safely walk to school. Availability of childcare is of significant importance. Our goal is always to highlight what is of value to the persons we are talking with,” says Mayor Hope.
Young families looking for affordable housing and an excellent school system with safe neighbourhoods would be enamored by the offerings within Chatham-Kent. Upon finishing high school a plethora of options are available regarding continuing education for career advancement including: St. Clair College, the University of Windsor, the University of Western Ontario, Fanshawe College and the University of Guelph Ridgetown campus, and all are within a relatively close proximity.
“We are in the centre of the hub of education,” Mayor Hope proudly says. “The availability of post-secondary education is both close and also affordable.”
In terms of entertainment, there is always something to do whether it’s dining out at one of the many fine restaurants and pubs or taking in events such as concerts, festivals, sports and recreation. The Buxton National Historic Site and Museum draws tremendous interest and is open year-round. And there is the picturesque Thames River, where scores of people can be found picnicking in the summer. The amalgamated community means having access to many long, storied histories and traditions. Festivals and events are occurring all the time and they are generated by the people living within those local communities who carry so much spirit and pride in the community.
“We have small theatre groups but also have a larger theatre that is owned by the municipality,” says Mayor Hope.
Gateway Casino & Entertainment recently announced that Chatham-Kent would be home to a $36-million gaming house. Harness racing will continue in Dresden but it does mean the slots will be moved with upgraded facilities at the new casino. A total of 200 new jobs will be created with twice as many machines and fantastic restaurants to select from. An executive with Gateway is on record as saying the municipal officials at Chatham-Kent were instrumental in making the project happen, and specific praise was given to Mayor Randy Hope and chief administrator Don Shropshire for their hands-on approach in helping move the process along every step of the way.
The municipality has a thriving Small Business Centre, which 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. In particular, there has been noticeable movement in the IT sector because the cost of doing business is so much cheaper than a large urban centre. It’s easy to parachute people in from outlying universities.
In looking to the future, Mayor Hope wants to see a growth in population in order to support the businesses that are moving into the region.
“I’d like to see about 115,000 people living in Chatham-Kent by 2020. That would help my assessment growth because we’ve got our fiscal costs under control. When I took office we were $163 million in debt. As of the end of December, 2017 it was at $84.6 million. Of that, half was water and wastewater, so a little more than $40 million was on property taxes,” explains the mayor.
The fantastic geographic location attractiveness of Chatham-Kent cannot be overstated.
“We were rated by Readers’ Digest as one of the top 10 locations to be on your motorcycle while riding around. You can cruise along the rivers and lakes and tour the countryside and see the agricultural products and the vegetable stands. It’s a wholesome approach where you get to enjoy the climate associated with doing something,” says Mayor Hope.
“We’ve got our financial house in order but we continue to make large capital expenditures and are paying for it as we go as opposed to borrowing,” he continues.
Mayor Hope also believes it’s prudent to move aggressively on the issue of international students. He and members of the municipal team already work closely with St. Clair College in attracting ambitious students from other countries.
“I would like to see as many as 2,000 international students coming here for higher education,” he says. “And, by 2020 I’d love to have a brand new arena; we have one of the oldest arenas in Canada. Chatham-Kent is a great place to both live and work.”