Beyond the GTA

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HAMILTON & CORNWALL, Ont. – Hamilton, situated on the banks of Lake Ontario, practically within the shadows of Toronto’s towering skyscrapers, is home to a vibrant marine port, rail hub and cargo airport – all less than an hour’s truck travel from several high-volume US commercial border crossings. Yet it has always been known as an industrial city, better known for its fire-breathing, smoke-belching steel mills than its endless transportation possibilities, or for that matter, sustainability.

A new member-driven organization dubbed TransHub is hoping to change all that, buoyed by a McMaster Institute for Transportation and Logistics report that found “Hamilton is already a significant economic player on a national and regional scale.”

The report, A Sustainable Strategy for Developing Hamilton as a Gateway, noted the Hamilton Economic Region’s economy is larger (by GDP contribution) than that of Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, P.E.I. or Newfoundland and Labrador.

Yet the report went on to say Hamilton could do much more to take advantage of its geographic location and abundance of existing transportation infrastructure.

“Hamilton has not reached its full potential from a goods movement perspective, nor from a sustainability, or economic development perspective,” the report concluded.

As a transportation hub, the Hamilton region already has a lot going for it. John Dolbec, president and CEO of TransHub, rhymes off some of the region’s attributes: “We have a port, which is the busiest port on the Canadian side of the Great Lakes, we have an airport, which is Canada’s largest courier cargo airport right now, we have a ground transportation system with easy access without substantial gridlock to North America’s three busiest border crossings (in Sarnia, Windsor and Niagara) and we have 152 million people within one day’s truck travel and 300 million within one day’s train travel.”

Hamilton, Dolbec noted, was perfectly positioned to be a major transportation hub without ever really aspiring to be one. “We have all the assets in place to make us an effective transportation hub,” he told Truck News in an interview. “The question is not whether we’re going to become a transportation hub, but whether we are going to be a hub that achieves our full potential or a hub that underperforms?”

TransHub, formed just over a year ago, is aiming to leverage all the Hamilton region’s attributes and better promote them to the transportation and logistics sectors. Dolbec said the region, which extends beyond Hamilton itself to include Niagara and Burlington as well as the southern reaches of the Kitchener-Waterloo and Guelph areas, has the potential to add 59,500 jobs – 35,000 within the supply chain sector and another 24,500 related – by 2031 and to generate $10.2 billion in economic growth over the same period, $4.8 billion of which will stay within the region with the remainder benefiting the Canadian economy as a whole.

The message is already getting out, Dolbec said, noting Maple Leaf Foods and Canada Bread have both committed to building major food processing facilities in the region, which won out over 24 competing jurisdictions. TransHub, still in its infancy, now boasts 32 corporate members. It operates much like a Chamber of Commerce, with member organizations working together towards the greater good. Trucking members include: Earl Paddock Transportation, Joseph Haulage, Fluke Transporation and Rims Transport. Knowing that skilled workers will be required to fill all the soon-to-be-available transportation-related jobs, the organization has also formed a Youth Division.

“There’s no point in trying to attract 5,000 jobs here over the next four years unless we have enough young people willing to take up careers in that field,” Dolbec acknowledged. “We’re hoping to increase the number of young people opting for careers in the supply chain.”

On the labour front, Hamilton also is home to a large number of unemployed or underemployed blue collar workers – many former steelworkers – who would make great truck drivers. But Dolbec is cautious about positioning the region as an area where prospective truck drivers are in abundance.

“I wouldn’t want to give your readers the impression it’s some kind of paradise (for finding drivers),” Dolbec said. “A critical skills shortage is a phenomenon everybody is facing. We may be better equipped than most other regions because of the large mass of unemployed and underemployed blue collar folks, but it’s a crucial problem everywhere.”

Dolbec prefers to focus on other advantages for businesses, including the availability of inexpensive land and low development costs.

“We have one of the lowest costs in terms of real estate of any jurisdiction in Ontario and in terms of development costs, Hamilton-Niagara has the lowest development charges,” Dolbec claimed.

If there’s an area where the Hamilton region could fall short, it’s that its marine port isn’t equipped to serve as a major container hub. Ocean-going container vessels are choked off at the St. Lawrence Seaway, which was never constructed to allow container ships to pass through.

Therefore, containers are generally offloaded at the East Coast ports and then transported to the Hamilton region by rail. Containers still represent an emerging opportunity for the region, however, according to Dolbec. With the deepening of the Panama Canal, more container ships from Asia will choose to offload at East Coast ports and from there, containers can be moved very efficiently via Canada’s rail network to the Hamilton area for further delivery to nearby markets and those in the Midwestern US.

“The Canadian railway system has significant competitive advantages over the US rail system,” Dolbec said. “When the Panama Canal is finished in 2014, container traffic moving through this area will come through the Canadian East Coast ports simply because of the nature of the rail system in the US, which is frankly not as efficient or effective in terms of handling that (volume). It will mean lots of increased opportunities for Canadian trucking to be able to trans-ship this stuff from intermodal transfer facilities somewhere in this area to the US Midwest.”

Hamilton, of course, isn’t the only region that’s trying to market itself as a transportation hub. Five hundred kilometres to the east, on Hwy. 401, Cornwall is experiencing a renaissance of its own. Located near Ottawa and just over an hour southwest of Montreal, Cornwall is making a big push to be considered a true transportation hub.

Just how big a push are we talking? Half a billion dollars was invested in the community last year alone. The interest in logistics expansion in the community is enough that representatives from the city, the industry and school system got together in late February to discuss opportunities for the future.

The day-long event, co-hosted by the Canadian Supply Chain Sector Council (CSCSC) and the City of Cornwall at St. Lawrence College and attended exclusively by Truck News, opened with a look at recent and future investments in transportation in the region.

The list included: Supply Chain Management’s (SCM) 1.4 million sq.-ft. distribution centre (DC) with 900 employees; Target’s 1.3 million sq.-ft. DC (currently under construction); Shopper’s Drug Mart’s 600,000 sq.-ft. DC, with more than 125 employees; Boundary Properties’ 600,000 sq.-ft. DC (currently under construction); Benson’s 150,000 sq.-ft. DC, with more than 125 employees; and Richelieu Hosiery’s 150,000 sq.-ft. DC with 50 employees.

On the trucking side of things, Minimax Express, International Truckloa
d Services and Seaway Express have all set up shop in Cornwall, with about 100 employees each. Other notables include Cornwall Warehousing, Villeneuve Tank Lines and Translogic Express.

But all this transportation activity begs the question: Why Cornwall and why now? Bob Peters, senior development officer with the City of Cornwall, said: “We’ve had half a billion dollars invested in Cornwall in 2011 alone, and prior to that, in 2009, we had our biggest building year ever, and 2010 was no small year either. So it’s been about three years of consistent stellar growth for Cornwall, while the rest of the country was really going through a soft period and a downturn.”

Like Hamilton, Cornwall boasts inexpensive real estate and low development costs and is relatively free of traffic congestion. Peters said the city opened up 500 acres of service land along Hwy. 401 with no development charges at all. The region also boasts a skilled workforce.

Peters said when you combine all those factors, the area becomes a very attractive option for a company looking to set up a distribution centre: “Literally, we are saving (the company) millions and millions of dollars.”

Business perks aside, geography is also a key factor in Cornwall’s burgeoning transportation presence, with its close proximity to Montreal, Ottawa, and the US and easy access to Hwy. 401.

“We’re a great gateway or launching pad for Eastern Canada, but we’re also able to service Central Canada at the same time,” said Peters.

CSCSC executive director Kevin Maynard said Cornwall’s emergence as a transportation hub is the result of a “perfect storm.”

“Combined the with ability of the municipality to provide serviced land at the size that’s required for distribution centres…access to transportation, access to other markets and the availability to service land is the primary reason why large-scale distribution centres are being located in Cornwall. So, it is a perfect storm,” he said.

At present, about 2,000 people work in the Cornwall Business Park (which houses the majority of the aforementioned businesses), but it’s been suggested that number could rise to 3,000 as early as 2014.

To keep pace with Cornwall’s growing need for new workers to support its emergence as a transportation gateway, educators are working with both the city and the industry to generate interest in the transportation and logistics sector as a viable career path for young people.

“With the emergence of supply chain management sector jobs in the Cornwall area and also in Greater Eastern Ontario it begs the question: ‘What sort of program should we be providing to better support that industry’?” said Don Fairweather, campus dean of St. Lawrence College’s Cornwall campus. “So we created an advisory council with members from this industry who are speaking to us about what they need and how we could help…It’s a great example of the college responding to community need and listening to the community, and then mobilizing our resources to help meet the needs.”

Added CSCSC’s Maynard: “I think one of the biggest things is that we are looking at a collaborative opportunity. In Eastern Ontario, and particularly in Cornwall, there has been a lot of engagement from the municipality, from learning institutions like St. Lawrence College, from employers and other groups to look at bringing the message together and providing opportunity for people to work together for a common goal.”

Peters said that the other real challenge will be to present transportation and logistics as a desirable career path.

“The biggest distribution centres and other transport companies in the area that are hiring – that are looking for truck drivers, in-house workers, IT specialists, engineers – we are looking to mirror up people with those skills with those job opportunities. It’s not going to happen overnight. I think we are all well aware of the demographic situation in Canada – Cornwall is no different – but the goal is to engage young people through their college and post-secondary careers to understand the opportunities and the rewards that are in the logistic sector.”

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  • I don’t disagree at all, Peter. Truckers are indeed both a profession & a lifestyle that has been greatly unappreciated & under valued.

    My only point being that many 8-5’ers have never had the opportunity to sample that lifestyle. While, I agree that it is not for everyone – there are many who would take it up, if given the chance.