Known as the friendliest community in Ontario, the Municipality of Chatham-Kent is comprised of twenty-three communities and seven major cities across an area of 2,400 square kilometres – about three-quarters the size of the province of Prince Edward Island. With a population of approximately 104,000, scenic Chatham-Kent spreads from the shores of Lake St. Clair to the shores of Lake Erie and from Tilbury to the Highgate area.
Created in 1998 by the merger of Kent County and its municipalities, the current single-tier municipality of Chatham-Kent traces its history back to the 1790s, when it served as a naval dockyard on the Thames River. An important site during the War of 1812, the area was also an integral part of the Underground Railroad during the 19th century, serving as a refuge for many slaves who escaped the United States for Canada.
Emerging over the years as a key agricultural location, Chatham-Kent’s climate and soil make the area ideal for a wide variety of crops. “We can grow just about anything, based on our climate, and the soils we have here in Chatham-Kent,” says Randy Hope.
As the mayor for the past nine years, Hope is passionate about the vital role Chatham-Kent plays in the future of Ontario’s economic growth. He is originally from Tilbury, a small rural town located in the west end of Chatham-Kent. Prior to entering politics at age 29, Hope was heavily involved in the labour movement and worked with the Canadian Auto Workers.
“If you believe in change, it usually happens if you get involved, and I believe it was important at the time.” Hope, now in his mid-50s, is an advocate for Chatham-Kent and all the area has to offer businesses and residents alike.
“Agriculture and automotive are still the primary industries,” he says. “Agriculture is a $3 billion a year industry here in Chatham-Kent. We grow basically for the world.” It isn’t only agriculture, the Municipality of Chatham-Kent is emerging as one of the fastest-growing locations in Canada.
Chatham-Kent continues to be the home of numerous companies engaged in automotive parts manufacturing, food processing and other areas. One newer area is the wind power industry, and Chatham-Kent is one of the largest industrial wind areas in all of Ontario. Additionally, the area is known for its trailer manufacturing, agricultural conveyors and storage bin manufacturing.
Although Chatham-Kent lost truck assembly plant Navistar due to restructuring, thirteen new businesses were established in the area in 2013-14, creating 500 new jobs in the process. Part of the community’s strategy is to diversify the local economy to avoid going through “another Navistar bump,” according to Mayor Hope.
The area is attracting businesses across a wide variety of sectors. Primarily, Chatham-Kent is looking at four basic sectors: food processing and adding value to crops, advanced manufacturing, chemical fertilizer production and greenhouse expansion. Some of these require considerable amounts of water for processing, along with natural gas. Others are engaged in alternative methods of manufacturing and production, such as greenfield ethanol.
“We are also looking at spin-offs utilizing steam and carbon dioxide to support agricultural growth in the greenhouse industry, which is a large growth area and a high added-value in labor,” comments Mayor Hope.
Recognizing the area was ripe for alternative energy development, private industries began establishing a presence for wind energy. This occurred even prior to the introduction of the Government of Ontario’s Green Energy Act (GEA) in 2009. The act set out to encourage energy conservation, promote clean energy jobs and expand renewable energy generation by focusing on a number of sources of renewable energy, including solar, hydroelectricity, bioenergy and wind.
The process that supported the wind industry in Chatham-Kent, began in 2007, says Michael Burton, director of economic development for the area. “Currently, we have 450 industrial turbines producing 881 MW of power, plus we are also a key area focused on solar. We have two big solar farms here and a lot of smaller solar initiatives, and that’s because we get more sun than anybody else.” The power being sold back to the grid helps to support jobs, construction and work in the cement and gravel industry, while benefiting farmers and the municipality itself.
A superior place for businesses to start, expand or relocate, the Municipality of Chatham-Kent is centrally located just two and a half hours from Toronto. The municipality is bisected by provincial Highway 401 – which serves as a major trade route to the United States via Detroit – and has seven points of entry to the U.S. within just one hour’s drive, making it extremely well-positioned to serve the entire North American market. Its logistical infrastructure makes it ideal for access not only by road, but by CNR and CP rail and water, as it is located between Lake Erie and Lake St. Clair. Three international airports are located just within one hour’s drive, while Chatham-Kent itself can accommodate corporate aircraft at its local municipal airport.
“I would say that the number one business advantage of being in Chatham-Kent is our dedicated workforce,” states Mayor Hope. “I say that with all sincerity, because we are coming from an agricultural base where most people are familiar with hard work and dedication to an employer to make success.”
A competitive corporate tax rate below that of the United States, port access, freshwater commercial fishing, the advantage of the exchange rate and other factors are encouraging businesses to come to the area. Unlike some municipalities, Chatham-Kent has a single-tier government. “As the Mayor representing all the communities, seventeen counselors and one system, businesses don’t have to worry about multiple systems to go through.”
With infrastructure already in place, Chatham-Kent has a dedicated project manager to support industry looking at investment or growth which, by its projections, could add 50,000 persons to the area. The area is building on what it does best, namely promoting itself and its access to water, natural gas, available land with infrastructure and a great deal more.
In addition to the Blenheim Industrial Park – which has been sold to the Global Development Center – the area offers the Ridgetown Industrial Park and its newest industrial location, The Bloomfield Business Park.
Situated at Bloomfield Road and Highway 401, The Bloomfield Business Park is located on approximately 100 acres, with sites already serviced by municipal water, storm sewers, natural gas, fiber optic cable and three-phase electrical services. Value pricing is available for larger acreage purchases and the park is very reasonably priced at $50,000 per acre, compared to anywhere from half a million dollars to $2 million per acre for industrial land in the GTA.
As the municipality looks to diversify its industrial base, the Bloomfield site is perfect for a number of businesses and industries, including food production, major warehousing and distribution operations. For the automotive sector, there are twenty-three automotive assembly plants within just three hours of this location along the 401 corridor. Unlike in major cities, there are no traffic jams, a fact that is essential to businesses guaranteeing just-in-time deliveries.
Geographically situated to serve both the Canadian and American markets, Chatham-Kent is attracting interest from companies not only across Canada and the United States, but internationally.
For businesses interested in expanding or establishing a presence in Chatham-Kent, there are number of provincial and federal financial incentive programs available as well as local programs like The Chatham-Kent Brownfield and Bluefield Community Improvement Plan. The goal is to attract new businesses to the area while keeping and expanding existing ones.
“We have one of the best business retention programs around,” says Mayor Hope. “We support them in grant applications. We have also established a local workforce planning board that takes in the needs of employers for today and tomorrow, along with our economic development staff on the doorsteps of local businesses… We work with them in a number of other areas. It is not just a matter of them coming in and establishing their company; we make sure their continued relationship can be a part of the family as they move forward.”
The program broadens the profile of Chatham-Kent among businesses through a variety of tax incentives, grants and one-on-one meetings with top levels of organizations in locations as far away as China and India. It helps create a solid case as to why businesses should set up shop in Chatham-Kent.
Additionally, Chatham-Kent has an export development program for local companies wishing to look outside the area for new markets and will provide some financial assistance to defray costs.
Chatham-Kent is becoming increasingly popular with both families and couples who want to retire in comfort. In fact, the area was recently profiled in Canada’s national newspaper, The Globe and Mail, and identified by readers as a great Canadian community for retirement.
Among the reasons cited for the area’s popularity? Friendliness, very affordable housing, proximity to Canadian and American airports, plenty of parks and beaches, a mild climate and a laid-back lifestyle. Despite Chatham-Kent’s relatively small population, it still has many of the amenities of larger cities, including big box stores, movie theaters, libraries, top-notch schools and hospitals.
For outdoor lovers, there is never a shortage of things to do, from boating and fishing to golfing, motorcycling, camping and more. All activities are much more reasonably priced than in larger centres.
An average home in the area is priced at about $150,000 which is much, much less than the $700,000 or more one would pay for comparable house in Toronto.
“We like to say you can live rich here, but you don’t have to be rich,” remarks Burton. “All of the investments you’ve made over your entire life in your more expensive home, you can come here, have a quality home and still enjoy all the amenities. The weather is great and the nice part is, you can go to the major centers like Detroit, Windsor or Toronto – just a few hours away – and still be able to come home to Chatham-Kent.”