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John Lacroix was laid off from the Sterling Truck plant in St. Thomas, Ont. and now works part-time at Lear Corp., which will close its plant soon. Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail (Moe Doiron/Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)
John Lacroix was laid off from the Sterling Truck plant in St. Thomas, Ont. and now works part-time at Lear Corp., which will close its plant soon. Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail (Moe Doiron/Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)

REMADE IN CANADA

How the economic storm battered St. Thomas, Ont.'s factories Add to ...

His working life is on the road to recovery with a steady part-time job this month at a non-profit housing residence in London, where he will offer mentoring and counselling to residents. St. Thomas, too, is making some early steps toward recovering lost jobs by attracting some manufacturers, including Masco Canada Ltd., which took over the Sterling plant and now employs about 400 people making plumbing fixtures and other housing-related products.

St. Thomas won some spinoff benefits from the new Toyota Motor Manufacturing Canada Inc. plant in Woodstock, Ont., which gave that city a major boost during the recession. Takumi Stamping Canada Inc., which supplies metal parts to Toyota’s Woodstock plant, is expanding in St. Thomas and now has about 150 employees. St. Thomas has also retained some auto parts plants, notably two Magna International Inc. factories.

Masco and Takumi are examples of how the city is working hard to attract new businesses to replace those that have left, says Bob Wheeler, general manager of St. Thomas Economic Development Corp. He points to the price of industrial land and a skilled work force as advantages St. Thomas has in landing other businesses.

“We build things here and we do a good job at it,” he says.

But the full impact of the Ford closing won’t be felt until later this year.

In several empty factories near where Mr. LaCroix installed dashboards in truck cabs at what was once the Sterling plant, but is now Masco, weeds poke through the asphalt in empty parking lots.

One of those factories is a block south on Harwill Road, where the green lights on the loading dock at the former ZF Heavy Duty Steering Inc. plant still blink every few seconds to alert drivers that it’s safe to back up – even though the factory closed in December, 2009. A few blocks east of that is the soon-to-be-shuttered Lear plant.

Mr. LaCroix is watching his colleagues at Lear endure the same painful issues the Sterling workers faced.

“I’ve seen parents fighting with their kids because they have to tell them: ‘I don’t know if you can join hockey this year.’ “

Rod Potgieter, executive director of Family & Children’s Services of St. Thomas & Elgin County, has noticed the impact of the manufacturing decline in other ways.

“There’s increases in addictions, there’s increases in domestic violence and there’s increases in child abuse and neglect,” Mr. Potgieter says. “It kind of cascades down to us, but it’s a social artifact of the economic recession.”

In 2008, Elgin County, which stretches from Lake Erie’s north shore to the city of London’s south side and includes St. Thomas, had the largest increase in Canada of people seeking access to social assistance, he notes. His own agency closed fewer cases than it normally does during healthy economic times and transferred more cases to other agencies.

The effect is felt throughout the services industry and in the charitable sector, too. The loss of manufacturing jobs has had a dramatic impact on the United Way, for example. The Canadian Auto Workers union, which designates that fund-raising drive as one of its key priorities, represents workers at Ford and did so for Sterling’s hourly employees as well.

CAW members and other employees at Sterling contributed $300,000 annually to the United Way, says Sharon Lechner, who departed as chief executive officer of Elgin-St. Thomas United Way in May.

“A few years ago we [raised]$1.2-million,” Ms. Lechner says. “Last year we raised $712,000, so it’s had a huge impact.”

Mr. Potgieter points out that at one time, Family & Children’s Services received $60,000 annually from United Way to run a moms and tots program, mainly for single parents with pre-school children. That funding was cut to $26,000 last year and he no longer relies on United Way to finance the program.

In nearby Fingal, Ont., Jim McIntyre, Mayor of Southwold Township, where the Ford plant is located, is figuring out how he will cope with the loss of $400,000, or one-quarter of his tax base.

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