Windsor to Toronto: We’re definitely not Detroit

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Never mind Detroit.

Its nearest neighbour, the City of Windsor, is in better shape than it has been in years. And it’s looking to attract more business from the Greater Toronto Area.

That’s the message Windsor Mayor Eddie Francis and Windsor Essex Development Corp. chief executive officer Sandra Pupatello came to sell to Toronto on Thursday.

It’s not just that a four-bedroom house costs only $150,000 – a fraction of GTA prices — and the longest commute to work is under 5 minutes, Francis told the Toronto Star’s editorial board Thursday.

The city has cut taxes, reduced its debt, and found a way to give companies that want to relocate to Windsor a big helping hand, he said.

But the city has a perception problem, Francis acknowledged after a speech to the Toronto Regional Board of Trade. Its nearest neighbor, Detroit, sought bankruptcy protection in July, owing $18 billion (U.S.) to creditors.

“Without a doubt the bankruptcy in Detroit affects us from a perception perspective and from an image perspective … but it is not an economic issue,” Francis told reporters later.

“But from an image perspective it does hurt and that’s why we are out telling the story the way that we are,” he said.

Many business leaders in Toronto assume Windsor is in the same dire straits as Detroit, said Pupatello, a former Ontario cabinet minister.

That’s simply not the case, she said.

While Detroit was collapsing under the weight of unfunded pension liabilities and a dwindling tax base, Windsor was cutting its debt load, freezing taxes and modernizing its airport and bus station and other facilities.

“Now that all the heavy lifting’s been done, it’s time to tell the story,” Pupatello said. “We have a differentiator — truly lower costs, truly advanced infrastructure.”

Francis acknowledged the two cities are intrinsically linked by the busiest border in North America. The tunnel and bridge at Windsor-Detroit handle 28 per cent of all trade between Canada and the U.S., and half the trucks that cross there are headed for the GTA.

But while the city government in Detroit is bankrupt, the city itself is not, Francis said, noting private investors have poured $10 billion U.S. into the area.

“The auto recession and decline in manufacturing of ‘06 and ‘07 had a significant impact on our community. You could see that in the unemployment rate. It was nearly 16 per cent,” Francis told the editorial board. “Many people wrote us off.”

The city began looking for ways to diversify and differentiate itself, he said.

“Our approach has been we want to become the most affordable most attractive community in Ontario,” Francis said.

Windsor achieved its goals by cutting costs, Francis acknowledged. It no longer provides publicly operated day care. It has outsourced garbage collection and parking enforcement.

When it decided to build a new aquatic centre and close two older pools, it offered the union that represents recreation staff the option of agreeing to cost-savings or seeing the new facility privatized.

The union chose to take a cut, he said.

Altogether, the city has 160 fewer employees out of a total of 3,000.

Bu it has already scored some new businesses, Francis said, citing a deal struck earlier this month with Fedex Canada to operate an international cargo hub at Windsor International Airport.

Meanwhile, the unemployment rate for the region has fallen to 9.2 per cent, he noted.