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The six-year-old Welland International Flatwater Centre hosted canoeing and rowing events during the 2015 Pan American Games.Handout

A unique convergence presents itself to truckers, engineers and helmsmen approaching the Townline Tunnel from the north, south, east or west. While it’s not a regular occurrence, big rigs and Canadian Pacific Railway trains have been known to simultaneously pass under the Welland Canal in Ontario’s Niagara Region at exactly the same time as lake freighters ply the waters directly overhead.

“That intersection is priceless,” says Welland Mayor Frank Campion. “Our industrial amenities and transportation infrastructure are attracting industry and the jobs associated with it, and align perfectly with the federal government’s plans for transporting goods on an international scale.”

Combine this with bountiful incentives and a wealth of newly zoned land, and it’s no wonder commercial and industrial real estate development is growing at an unprecedented rate in the Rose City.

Welland’s building boom, which started about two years ago, owes much to the continuing divestment of some 1,600 hectares of federally-owned land along the working canal. “There are several plots we will be interested in purchasing as soon as they come up for sale,” Mr. Campion says. “Given our current levels of residential and industrial growth, we need to have enough land inventory for the future.”

A recent federal transport and infrastructure committee recommendation to use canal corridor lands to boost Niagara’s economy has only strengthened the city’s bid to build a dock and loading area on the working canal with financial support from Ottawa’s $2-billion National Trade Corridors Fund, which began a call for proposals in January.

"A diversified economy is important to Welland,” Mr. Campion says, adding that the city is working hard to avoid a repeat of the spate of local plant closures that accompanied the 2008 financial crisis.

The value of the 726 construction permits issued in Welland in 2017 – $164,548,600 – was more than double that of 2016, with the 802 permits issued in 2018 setting a new record. “We’re taking an aggressive approach to development, and it’s been very successful,” says Mr. Campion, who credits the Welland By-Pass channel for allowing the city “to separate residential, recreational and tourism development from industrial development.”

The original route of the fourth Welland Canal, which passes through the city centre, is lined with bike paths, parks, a 750-seat amphitheatre, and the 12-year-old Welland International Flatwater Centre, which hosted canoeing and rowing events during the 2015 Pan American Games.

At the other end of the real estate spectrum is the canal’s 13.4-kilometre-long bypass, which opened on the city’s eastern outskirts in 1973. It is lined with dozens of industrial and commercial operations, such as Welded Tube of Canada, Canadian Tire Financial Services Ltd., and Austrian engine manufacturer Innio, which recently moved into a $240-million, 500,000-square-foot assembly plant established by General Electric in 2016.

Newer arrivals, such as Northern Gold Foods and Intravision Greens Canada, occupy the six-year-old Enterprise Industrial Subdivision off Highway 140. Intravision, which is slated to grow leafy vegetables in a 20,000-square-foot automated indoor farm, will benefit greatly from its Niagara Foreign Trade Zone setting, says Neville D’Souza, chief executive officer of site developer Niagara Holdings Canada.

“The proximity to the U.S. border and major highways, combined with the ability to apply for tax, duty and tariff exemptions, gives us a real advantage,” he says. “The City of Welland has a very proactive team, and that’s attracting skill sets to the region and bringing the younger generation back. It’s exciting to see all the momentum.”

Northern Gold Foods, meanwhile, is one of 13 ventures that have already benefited from the Gateway Community Improvement Plan, which offers financial incentives to property owners who strengthen and diversify the local economy through private-sector investment. In 2018 alone, four applicants received $2.4-million in grants from the City of Welland and the Niagara Region by investing $38.6-million in 225,000 square feet of new industrial space.

Then there’s the new River Road Industrial Park, a cleared and as-yet-unoccupied 12-hectare expanse slated to be serviced in the coming months. It’s already drawing interest from buyers, especially those based in the Greater Toronto Area, says Dan Degazio, the City of Welland’s director of economic development.

“Companies are paying $200,000 an acre for commercial-industrial property in the GTA. In Welland it’s $125,000 an acre – serviced, configured for drainage, and ready to go. You can be in the ground in eight weeks. In the GTA, I’m hearing stories of 30 months for a permit. We work to accommodate whatever needs to be done. When GE bought here in 2016, they needed to be operational in less than two years. We had them in the ground in eight weeks.”

Mr. Degazio also credits the area’s relatively low wages and cost of living for enticing industry. “I’ve been in touch with a decent-sized GTA employer that’s looking at putting in a 200,000-square-foot building. The owner asks me, ‘Am I going to be able to hire anyone for $18 an hour?’ And I told him: ‘All day long.’ Here, your employees get twice the house for a third the cost.”

Niagara College’s Welland campus is also playing a key role, Mr. Degazio adds, by offering programs that develop manufacturing skills such as machining, tooling and drafting.

All this has made Roy Timms a busy man. The owner of Timbro Design Build Contractors says current levels of development surpass anything he’s experienced since founding the company in 1974.

“In the last few years, city council has done what needed be done to create an environment that encourages growth,” he says. “Instead of just policing, the Welland Development Commission assists in expediting projects. One of our clients came to Welland last June to set up a 75,000-square-foot food production facility. By the end of September he had purchased the land and in October we were building. That’s unique. In most communities, it takes much longer complete the process.”