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Factory lights go out in the town Bata built

BATAWA.JUNE.17.2009 PHOTOS SHOT ON 4X5 SHEET FILM WITH PINHOLE CAMERA. Just outside of town on Hwy 33 is the sign for the town of Batawa. Located north of Trenton, the town was founded by Tomas Bata where he located his factory which closed up in 1999. Today, Carlton University architecture students are coming up with ideas on what to do with the building. PHOTO BY FRED LUM/ GLOBE AND MAIL BLACK AND WHITE FILM IMAGE


Seventy years ago, a model village devoted entirely to manufacturing was carved out of the farmland and forests of eastern Ontario.

Thursday, that dream died, when the last remnant of manufacturing in the community of Batawa was designated for closing.

Linamar Corp., the Guelph-based auto parts giant, announced it will be shutting its Invar plant - on a site where 100 Czechoslovakian tradespeople arrived in 1939 to build the famed Bata shoe works in Canada.

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"The bottom line is we just struggled to find business based on the cost structure and location," said Linda Hasenfratz, CEO of Linamar, in announcing the phasing-out of operations over the next few months.

For years, Batawa, two hours east of Toronto, was the ultimate company town, with rows of wartime houses rented to factory workers by the town's builder, shoe magnate Thomas Bata.

Mr. Bata and his shoemakers had fled their native Czechoslovakia ahead of Nazi armies, and re-established themselves in Canada.

At one point, close to 2,000 people worked in shoemaking and related trades in Batawa. But by the late 1990s, the village no longer fit into Bata Ltd.'s plans, as the global shoe giant closed its Batawa plant and shifted more production to lower-wage countries.

Linamar had bought the former Bata engineering works in the late 1980s, and for the past decade, its plant, called Invar Manufacturing Corp., was the only employer of any size left in town. At this point, Invar employs 134 people, far below capacity, in turning out auto parts, nuclear components and recreational vehicle products.

"It's a disappointing story," said Sonja Bata, widow of the late owner Thomas Bata. At 83, she is on a mission to convert the vacant former shoe factory, which she owns, into condos and a business incubator, and to build 500 houses in the town. There are now about 300 people in the community, and the homes, mainly modern bungalows, are owned by the residents, who are often retirees and commuters to jobs elsewhere. Mrs. Bata said she still plans to forge ahead with her plans but the Invar closing is a blow. "Some people who live in the area don't have jobs now," she said.

Plant workers are represented by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, making Invar a rare unionized shop in the Linamar organization. Ms. Hasenfratz would not comment directly on whether labour flexibility was a factor in the closing. On why the plant didn't meet cost targets, she said "we weren't able to come to an acceptable conclusion."

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She pointed out that the site of the Invar plant is also a bit remote from key customers. That, of course, is the great irony. Batawa was created because of its remoteness - far from war-torn Europe. But in the end, it helped close the chapter on a model manufacturing village.

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About the Author
Senior Writer, Report on Business

Gordon Pitts is an author, public speaker and business journalist, with a focus on management, strategy, and leadership. He was the 2009 winner of Canada's National Business Book Award for his fifth book, Stampede: The Rise of the West and Canada's New Power Elite. More

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