Brockville Recorder & Timea, December 14, 2020
As the COVID-19 pandemic devastated the global economy, it also taught Canadian businesses a stark lesson about the world supply chain, a lesson the region’s economic development commission won’t forget.
And the result has been local industries increasingly doing business with their neighbours, rather than with suppliers in other countries.
As the pandemic persisted from spring into summer, the St. Lawrence Corridor Economic Development Commission formed an industrial leadership team, bringing leaders of local industries together, touring each other’s plants.
The group began meeting every other month in mid-June.
Brockville Mayor Jason Baker, who is part of that group in his capacity as an owner of Ketchum Manufacturing, said it has enabled local business leaders to look outside their lanes.
“It’s been very interesting to watch one industry reach out to another and say: ‘I had no idea that you did that,’” said Baker.
“It’s a local collaboration that shortens the supply chain for industries and of course strengthens everybody’s operations and helps retain jobs,” he added.
The corridor commission brings together seven municipalities along the river to work together to attract and retain employers: Brockville, Prescott and the townships of Augusta, Edwardsburgh/Cardinal, Elizabethtown-Kitley, Front of Yonge and Leeds and the Thousand Islands.
The commission’s main objective is attracting new industries to the area, and commissioner Charlie Mignault said “re-shoring,” the return of manufacturing to North America from mainland China, remains a key avenue.
“The labour differential has been shrinking over the last decade,” said Mignault, adding robotics technology is cutting labour costs enough to start making up for the advantage of low Chinese labour costs.
Then came the “COVID stress test,” when the pandemic demonstrated how fragile a global supply chain can be, and how dependent Canada was on China in such sectors as health care and pharmaceuticals, said Mignault.
“What we saw in the first months was the shock to the supply chain,” he added.
The result is an acceleration of the re-shoring process, as Canadian firms tighten up that supply chain by bringing it closer to home.
In fact, the tightening was not prompted solely by China. In August, fears over the reliability of the personal protective equipment supply from the United States led to the expansion of Brockville’s 3M plant, which will soon manufacture N95 masks.
And within the corridor industrial leadership group, that has led to some happy discoveries.
The group has a dozen members, including such home-grown manufacturers as Canarm, Northern Cables and Newterra.
Mignault noted that Ross Video, which takes part even if it is technically outside the corridor, discovered that James Ross Ltd. north of Brockville, can manufacture engineered pieces for it that it has been sourcing from a company in Florida.
Similarly, Built Right, a manufacturer in Frankville, is able to work with Canarm in Brockville, said Mignault.
He added the corridor commission board is to meet on Wednesday to chart a course for 2021, hoping the arrival of a COVID-19 vaccine will signal a recovery later in the year.
Board members will discuss whether to continue on the current local consolidation course prompted by COVID, or flip back to a more full-scale focus on attracting industries by touting local advantages, said Mignault.
“We offer a solution to, say, the GTA or Montreal in that we have a very digitally-aware, well-educated workforce,” he said.
“We also have a strong price advantage. Our industrial land is extremely well-priced.”
As the Procter&Gamble plant winds down, local officials will work at marketing it to a potential new employer, even as skilled workers from that site remain, looking for new jobs.
And while the advent of robotics means any new manufacturer locating here will likely employ fewer people, “there’s definitely a job-creation play in this,” said Mignault.
“There’s less people per square foot on the floor, but we still know how valuable manufacturing is to an economy.”
That includes the people who do get jobs on that shop floor, but also ancillary work in the trades and logistics, added Mignault.
The commissioner is confident the new year will bring better news than 2020.
“I’m optimistic that we will get our fair share of new businesses coming,” he said.