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Wayne Gates of the NDP, Joyce Morocco of the Liberals and Bart Maves of the Conservatives are running in Feb. 13’s provincial by-election in Niagara Falls.PETER POWER/The Globe and Mail

From his barbershop on the main street of this blue-collar border town, Todd Bews has watched the community ebb as one employer after another pulled up stakes.

An aerospace firm, a pharmaceutical company, a printing plant – gone, gone, gone. And with each closing, his own business has suffered a little more.

"I live on half of what I used to 15 years ago," the 45-year-old says on a recent afternoon as a harsh winter wind blows snow outside.

Employment, and its absence, is the common thread that runs through Niagara Falls, one of two provincial ridings holding by-elections on Feb. 13.

Fort Erie and the working-class stretches of the city of Niagara Falls face the familiar problems of the North American rustbelt, with industrial businesses closing or relocating in pursuit of cheaper labour. The touristy parts of the Falls and Niagara-on-the-Lake, meanwhile, deal with the precariousness of an economy based on the service sector and seasonal employment.

It is a place where province-wide worries about jobs are amplified, and where all three parties are pushing hard on their economic platforms. This riding is a testing ground for the messages they will put front and centre in a general election that could come as soon as this spring.

The riding became vacant with the resignation last year of Kim Craitor, a Liberal backbencher who won three terms in part because of his willingness to take on his own party when he felt it was not serving his constituents' needs. The Liberals, Progressive Conservatives and New Democrats are all strong here, and all have nominated experienced local councillors to carry their standards. Entrepreneur Joyce Morocco is trying to keep the riding in the Liberal fold, against strong challenges from union leader Wayne Gates of the NDP and Tory Bart Maves, who was an MPP from 1995 to 2003.

Mr. Maves delivers a standard small-government pitch on the hustings: Lower taxes, a balanced budget and reduced red tape, he says, will spur job creation. In one of his frequent lines, he calls the Liberals big-city centric: "They have this border around Toronto, and I think that's all they care about."

His message goes over well in Fort Erie, where voters are angry after the Grits cancelled a program that gave slot machine revenue to racetracks. The move hurt the town's track, one of the few remaining major employers.

And the gas plant scandal – in which the Liberals spent a billion dollars to cancel two electricity facilities in the Toronto suburbs to soothe local opposition in their power base – did not help the perception that the governing party has given priority to some parts of the province over others.

Asked to name the ballot questions in the by-election, Rob Dunn, 55, starts with jobs and the economy, then the scandal. "The cancellation of the plants, the money wasted," he says.

However, in a riding where organized labour has a major presence, the Tories are cautious about their more controversial policies, playing down their right-to-work proposals. Mr. Maves says scrapping the Rand Formula is worth considering – "we have to explore every idea" – but he is not campaigning on it.

"I'm running on local issues – [the party] doesn't have a platform, per se," he says.

So far, the Tories appear more concerned about the NDP than the Liberals: Their first radio attack ad pummels the left-wing party and its "unrealistic" ideas.

The New Democrats, for their part, picked a candidate straight out of central casting: Wayne Gates is a former tool setter at the General Motors plant in nearby St. Catharines who got into politics through his union. Sporting a mustache and puffy orange coat, he looks in his element working the evening crowd at a bowling alley in a blue-collar part of the Falls – chest-bumping with one man and delivering a populist, left-wing message. He pledges more government control over the electricity sector, then rails against cutting taxes for big business.

"[The PCs] have a policy that wants to continue corporate tax cuts that haven't created one job," he says.

When he goes knocking on doors in a middle-class subdivision, many residents greet him by name. A few thank him for his constituency work as a councillor – particularly in making the owners of a vacant lot on the road keep their property clean.

Despite all the frustration with the governing party, it would be a mistake to write the Liberals off. Ms. Morocco is a polished politician with a decade on city council, and a Forum poll put her at 28 per cent – enough to be competitive.

Premier Kathleen Wynne, meanwhile, has thrown the kitchen sink at the riding, unveiling plans for a new hospital just days before the writ drop. And she is scheduled to be in Fort Erie on Wednesday, when Airbus Helicopters announces an expansion.

She knows well that the only way to hold this seat – and the province – is with jobs.

One vote the Liberals will not get is Mr. Bews's. He has backed them in the past, but this time is parking his support with Mr. Maves. The Tories' message of unfettering businesses from government red tape resonates with him. It is one way, he figures, to restore work to a place that has lost so much of it.

"When I started 20 years ago, there were 5,000 good jobs within a few miles of here," he says. "Now there's not 500."