Drive to diversify may require tripling WEEDC recruiters, mayor says

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

The Windsor Star/Brian Cross


Mayor Drew Dilkens is talking of tripling the number of bodies focussed on attracting new companies, following his “rally cry” to create jobs as if Windsor’s largest employer was shutting down in 2025.

The newly-elected city council is headed into budget talks in the coming weeks.

“We’ll be bringing a proposal to council for their consideration that shows how we can increase our efforts on economic development and really ramp up what we can do to bring additional business to the City of Windsor,” the re-elected mayor said Tuesday, on the heels of a sobering inaugural address Monday. Responding to last week’s announcement by GM to close its Oshawa operation, he told the audience he couldn’t help but think: “What if that happened here?”

The mayor made an “all-hands-on-deck” call to diversify the economy to prepare for a disaster he hopes will never happen — FCA closing its 6,000-employee Windsor Assembly Plant at the end of the plant’s current lifecycle with the Chrysler Pacifica.

On Tuesday, he said the diversifying drive will require more resources for the WindsorEssex Economic Development Corp., whose $2.8-million budget is funded primarily by the city’s $1.2 million and the county’s $978,000. In his speech he talked of tripling the city’s efforts.

“It may be triple or even more if we have any hope of attracting the number of jobs that would be required to buffer the loss of our largest employer, if that ever happened,” he said Tuesday, adding that he’s talking tripling the number of bodies he’s not talking about tripling the WEEDC’s budget, since there are many administrative expenses that wouldn’t need increasing.

“I really think this is the most important issue the city has faced in decades,” Dilkens said. “Because if you asked people what would the city be like if your largest employer closed down, I think the vast majority would have that hard swallow in their throat…. You know there would be big trouble here.”

Creating many new jobs and diversifying is imperative, he said. “We’ve got to put all our guts into this, this has to be a full city effort.”

Stephen MacKenzie, the CEO of WEEDC, said the mayor’s talk of ramping up efforts will certainly be a topic of discussion at the December meeting of the board, which Dilkens sits on. “We agree with him, 100 per cent, that (diversifying) is what we continue to need to do,” he said.

If WEEDC received more funding, it could “scale up” the many things it does, including marketing, promotion, trade missions and assisting local entrepreneurs and small businesses. The more you diversify, the less risk you run of having a large employer’s closure devastate your community, he said. You also avoid the economic peaks and valleys that happen when you’re too dependent on one industry, like auto. In recent years, other sectors have risen to the forefront, including agribusiness, the thriving tool, die and mould sector, aerospace and efforts to create an automation cluster here.

“We have to continue what we’re doing and always have an eye for the future,” MacKenzie said.

A rise in funding from the city would likely require a similar hike from the county, which shares the cost of WEEDC on a per capita basis. Outgoing Essex County Warden Tom Bain said county politicians will be interested to see how much more funding Dilkens is talking about.

“I think I can say with all sincerity the county is willing to work with Mayor Dilkens and look at his proposal,” said Bain. “I’m encouraged by his thoughts.”

Calling Dilkens’ speech a remarkable example of leadership, Ward 7 Coun. Irek Kusmierczyk, said the effort to diversify can start with looking at other regions who’ve been successful. The Central Indiana Corporate Partnership is a great example of a group of corporate and political leaders who rolled up their sleeves and got to work, transforming an economy that relied for generations on manufacturing and agriculture, said Kusmierczyk, who does economic development work as director of partnerships with WEtech Alliance. Central Indiana diversified into healthcare, pharmaceuticals and other sectors, he said.