Welcome to Our Cities. Please build.
In the highly competitive arena where municipalities vie to land new development projects, two cities on Ontario’s Niagara Peninsula are scoring big wins by going the extra mile to make it faster and easier for companies looking to break ground on projects. Located just 20 minutes from each other in central Niagara, the cities of Welland and St. Catharines have taken slightly different, but equally effective, approaches to attracting business and cutting the red tape that can bog down development.
In Welland, a team that includes members of all major city departments steers development applications quickly through the approvals process. Meanwhile, St. Catharines created a project expeditor role to serve as the city’s point person for investors and developers — the first and only of Niagara’s 12 municipalities, and one of only a handful in Ontario, to have a full-time expeditor on staff.
The commitment to streamline development has paid off for both cities over the past couple of years, with millions of dollars of new investment and assessment growth that benefits the entire Niagara region. With a large supply of serviceable land for greenfield builds, as well as brownfield options, Welland has earned a reputation as one of Ontario’s fastest cities to grant building permits and usher development projects to construction.
In some municipalities in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) it can take anywhere from 18 months to two years for companies to get the necessary approvals to build. In Welland, it takes a fraction of that time: commercial and industrial building permits are typically issued in less than three months, as little as four to eight weeks to get the green light for projects that meet planning and zoning criteria. “It’s a great source of pride for us to get them in the ground as quickly as possible,” says Dan Degazio, Welland’s Director of Economic Development. “We know that the faster we can help them become operational, the greater return on investment they receive and the quicker our entire community benefits.”
Eliminating roadblocks and fastracking development provide the edge needed to convince nearly a dozen major enterprises to locate in Welland over the past couple of years. A few highlights include:
- General Electric built a 450,000-sq.-ft. multi-modal manufacturing plant earlier this summer. The property was purchases in the summer of 2016, with construction beginning a month later (the facility was subsequently sold to Advent Internationals, now known as INNIO);
- British Columbia-based Northern Gold Foods was looking for a location in Ontario to set up a food-processing facility in 2015. It purchased property in Welland that September, began construction of a 100,000-sq.-ft. plant a month later and started production the following year;
- German-based hydraulics and fluidics company Hydac Corp. is investing approximately $3.7 million to expand its Welland manufacturing plant by 2019;
- Brampton Brick will be relocating a portion of its masonry products business to Welland in 2019.
In all, Welland’s pro-development approach has helped attract almost 1.5 million square feet of new industrial development since 2015. These developments represent more than $400 million in private sector investment and 375 new jobs for the city, whose internal development team meets regularly to review projects and ensure that staff and key divisions are aligned in supporting the city’s growth and development agenda and are working collaboratively with investors. The development community is noticing.
Luxury condominium builder Plazacorp Investments has purchased four-plus acres of city-owned property that touches on King and Lincoln streets for future commercial development, and in early July started work on a seniors residential complex fronting on the Welland Canal. The development company does dozens of projects in cities across the province, but Yehuda Gestetner, president of Plazacorp’s commercial division, said Welland has been their most pleasant experience when it comes to managing the various regulations that guide development projects.
When planning for their senior residence, Plazacorp purchased the land, had the site rezoned, a site plan approved and shovels in the ground in less than a year. In other areas, that process can take two to three years. “What’s unique about Welland is that they understand the importance of development,” said Gestetner. “They recognize they are a city on the rebound and understand that with new development you bring jobs, you bring growth, you bring opportunity and you bring a better quality of life. They have a strong sense of building a community in Welland.”
Investor interest in the city’s industrial lands is also helping to generate interest in residential development. Based on city and Region growth projections, the city is expected to increase by almost 19,000 residents by 2041, which would push the city’s population past 70,000. Last year, 223 new residential dwelling units were built in the city, the most in a decade. So far in 2018, there have been 128 residential units constructed, up from only 87 at this time last year. The city is on track to create 300 new units by the end of 2018.
“In addition to our incentive programs, businesses are benefitting from affordable land in Welland and Niagara, a skilled work force, multi-modal transportation options including highways and trade corridors to global markets, and access to leading research and innovation offered by Niagara College and Brock University,” said Degazio. “I speak with investors and developers every day, and I know how important these incentives are to their business plans and decisions. They’re giving us a competitive advantage in a global economy.”
The Garden City builds
In nearby St. Catharines, linked to Welland by Highway 406 and the Welland Canal, there is a similar commitment to clearing obstacles that can cause developers to look elsewhere to build.
Niagara’s largest city hired its first Project Expeditor in late 2017 to act as a conduit between city staff and developers, builders, investors, consultants and residents when dealing with significant developments and investments. “We’ve made great progress improving our processes to support the building community and encouraging growth,” said Brian York, the city’s Director of Economic Development and Government Relations. “Bringing on a project expeditor has played an important role in securing a number of significant development projects.”
Margaret Josipovic, who worked for the city as a planner since 2014, took on the expeditor role and serves as the city’s point person on major projects. “Because of my planning background, I’m able to offer insight into the process and help proponents get ahead of any potential issues before they run into anything that will hold them up,” she says, adding that reaction from the building community has been extremely positive. “We’re very busy. Once you start getting good results, developers and investors are very quick to share information with each other.”
While commercial development has been going strong in Welland, residential construction is the segment that’s booming in St. Catharines. With limited greenfield opportunities, residential infilling and intensification developments—particularly condominium projects—have been keeping the city busy. “When I came to Niagara, downtown St. Catharines was struggling,” said Sunil Bahadoorsingh, chairman of the Penn Terra Group Ltd. “Just like the city, we too took a leadership role investing in projects that will put people downtown. People living downtown are a key element to spawn growth.”
Penn Terra has invested heavily in downtown St. Catharines, pumping more than $50 million into three high-rise residential buildings, with a fourth high-rise building under development that will create 127 affordable housing units downtown on Church Street. “Working with the city’s economic development office and the expediter has been a very positive experience,” said Bahadoorsingh. “The expediter in particular has been a key function for us, ensuring we get all the necessary permits, documentation, compliances and approvals in place. It is ensuring that from start to finish we can stick to our timelines.”
The demand for these new units is being driven in part by high housing prices in the GTA that are incentivizing people to look across the lake to realize their home ownership dreams. Last year, the Garden City issued permits for 569 new residential dwelling units, an increase of 50 per cent over 2016. This year is shaping up to be even stronger. The city expects to issue permits for projects adding up to more than $130 million.
“We’ve seen a big influx over the past couple of years of first-time homeowners looking to get on the property ladder, retirees who want to bank a portion of their profits from house sales in the GTA and families who are looking to spend more time enjoying life instead of worrying about huge mortgage payments and gridlock,” said York.
Though they may be separate municipalities with their own distinct identities, St. Catharines and Welland are strong partners on the economic development front and understand they are in a mutually beneficial relationship as members of the broader region of Niagara. “A win in Welland is a win in St. Catharines because in a regional economy, you don’t need to live in the city where you work,” said York. “We can each help the other grow stronger.”
Marco Marino BAc., Ec.D., CEcD, is Economic Development Officer for the City of St. Catharines; and Lina DeChellis is Economic Development Officer for the Corporation of the City of Welland.