Welland, Ont., has hardly been known as a hotbed for growth, historically speaking. However, that has changed in the past couple of years.
“It’s quite a different picture from 10 years ago,” the City of Welland’s economic development officer Lina DeChellis told RENX in a recent interview. During the recession in 2008, “our friends were losing their jobs,” she said. “It was hard to see that.”
But today, cranes are everywhere — development is officially booming.
The catalyst came in 2016, when construction started on what was then called General Electric’s “brilliant” manufacturing facility: a custom-built, state-of-the-art 480,000-square-foot plant near Hwy. 140 and E. Main Street.
Built to produce hi-tech gas engines, the plant itself was festooned with sensors tracking every step of the process, linked to GE’s Predix software platform and streaming data to the company’s cloud servers over secure links for analysis.
Major manufacturer spurred growth
“It’s a positive impact,” said DeChellis, adding “since then, we’ve actually had quite a bit more investment follow” in the city’s main industrial area along Hwy. 140. Essentially, GE put Welland back on the proverbial map.
“I think when people heard the name GE, they started to look toward Welland,” said DeChellis.
Today, the company has a new name and a new owner: global private-equity firm Advent International acquired GE’s Distributed Power business last year. It formed a new standalone energy company called INNIO, but the change in ownership at the industrial flagship hasn’t slowed momentum in the city.
Innio now employs about 170 and is ultimately expected to grow to about 250 employees.
Several other new companies are setting up shop nearby, along the city’s aptly named Enterprise Drive.
Northern Gold Foods, a Port Coquitlam, B.C.,-based company which makes granola bars and cereal products, has added a 74,715-square-foot facility. Alberta’s Athena Donair decided to bite, too, as did Niagara Medical Structures.
“We have three food-processing plants,” said DeChellis, a “new sector for us.”
The influx has spurred growth at local companies, as well. Devron Sales Ltd., which provides construction products and services, has expanded.
Land, incentives, location aid Welland
The attraction? Vacant, shovel-ready land, an array of grants and tax rebates from the city and Niagara Region and a central location – both within the region and between the GTA and the U.S. border.
During 2018, four companies leveraged nearly $39 million in private-sector investment under the Niagara Gateway Economic Zone and Centre Community Improvement Plan (Gateway CIP).
It provides eligible projects with property tax reductions of between 40 and 100 per cent for five to 10 years. The program is offered to eligible property owners in Fort Erie, Niagara Falls, Port Colborne, Thorold and Welland. Projects are also eligible for grants to cover regional development charges.
Projects that promote private sector investment, development, redevelopment and construction activity in strategic zones are eligible to apply for the incentives, according to NiagaraCanada.com.
“This program allows us to rebate back a portion of that tax increase based on a scoring criteria that’s driven by the number of jobs that are created and retained, the building permit value of the project, and then meeting these ‘smart growth’ criteria,” said the city’s manager of development approvals Grant Munday.
$2.1M in incentives for Northern Gold
A points system determines the level of taxation for each company. For example, Munday said Northern Gold Foods will receive $2.1 million in tax incentives over a 1o-year-period.
“The hope is that that rebate program will help them build their business,” he said. “It helps us attract jobs, and then eventually the tax dollars will be available to the municipality (as the incentive periods end).”
The City of Welland finances 53 per cent of the total rebate, with the region taking on the remaining 47 per cent, Munday said. No provincial or federal financing is involved.
The municipality also fast-tracks zoning, planning and permitting processes. In Welland, paperwork and red tape can be slashed to as few as three months.
“A lot of developers will tell you it would take years in the GTA,” said Munday, who has a unique role in that he is involved with both planning and economic development. “We’re the fastest you could possibly be.”
DeChellis points out the city uses a “development-team approach” — essentially grouping stakeholders from departments such as planning, fire and traffic — to speed up the process and “make sure it moves forward in their respective departments.”
PlazaComm building seniors home
Yehuda Gestetner, president of PlazaComm Commercial (a division of Plaza Corporation), says city staff and Mayor Frank Campion are indeed pro-development. His company builds and leases commercial buildings and retail shopping centres with properties in Toronto, Napanee, Kingston, Port Hope and other Ontario locales.
It’s building a 130-suite seniors home in Welland called The Grand Canal Retirement Residence, expected to be completed by early 2021. Gestetner describes city staff as the most accommodating he’s dealt with.
“They understand that to . . . grow a city back to (the) financial stability that it needs, you need more investment and more interest within the city,” said Gestetner. “They’re showing us that they want us there, and they want us to develop and to grow the city and to create opportunity. It’s good for everyone. It’s a win-win.”
Niagara Medical Structures CEO Neville D’Souza concurs: “They have an absolutely terrific team there,” he said, calling municipal staff “brilliant” to work with.
D’Souza’s company was looking for a strategic location for a tenant in close proximity to the Greater Toronto Area and the U.S., “should any client of ours want to serve the U.S. market.”
It settled on Welland, “a key constituent” of the Niagara Foreign Trade Zone. The company acquired 4.5 acres just off of Hwy. 140 and created a 20,000-square-foot facility.
Hi-tech indoor farming operation
Tenant Intravision Group is developing one of the world’s first indoor farms combining technology from the University of Guelph and LED science from Norway, D’Souza said. It will grow lettuce, kale, spinach, arugula, and basil — all the essential leafy greens.
Growth is happening in the residential realm, too.
“In 2017, the city had 197 new dwelling units started,” said Munday. “In 2018, we doubled that.
“We’re now at 399 dwelling units created for 2018, and we expect that to continue for 2019 and it actually may end up being higher in 2019.”
Historically, “our numbers were around 150, 160 dwelling units and so this is a big increase for us there.”
New development means more employment options for those choosing to leave the GTA and the numbers are expanding.
At least 52,000 call Welland home and it’s expected to grow by about 1,000 per year.
The council-approved population and employment forecast for 2016-’41 projects 18,630 more people living in Welland by 2041, bringing the total population to 70,920. That forecast also includes an estimated 11,020 new jobs.