During his annual address, Brantford Mayor Chris Friel identified a lack of vacant industrial and commercial land as the main impediment to economic development in the city.
That view is shared by members of the city’s economic development advisory committee, who earlier this month told councillors that growth and job creation will remain stagnant until the city acquires or frees up more serviced employment land.
“An adequate supply of vacant industrial land, at various lot sizes, is required to accommodate both large and small end users,” said committee member James Chowhan.
The city has witnessed the benefits of developing industrial land. A total of 595 acres of municipally owned land was sold for development between 1997 and 2012. Those sales led to the construction of 5.43 million square feet of industrial space, creating 3,500 new jobs and retaining 1,900 existing jobs.
The land sales have also raised roughly $63 million in property taxes.
However, Chowhan said, the current lack of “shovel-ready” employment land is driving companies into other markets. This is especially true of entrepreneurs looking for smaller lots from which to expand. Once companies new to Brantford outgrow their initial location, they often aren’t able to grow any further and leave town.
“It’s small businesses that grow into medium and large-sized businesses, so we want to accommodate them,” Chowhan said. “Right now, we’re not doing the best we can.”
At present, Brantford has 45 acres of vacant serviced industrial land and three acres of unserviced land. Serviced land refers to construction-ready property connected to city utilities such as water and sewer.
Opportunities exist to add to that total, as 261 acres of serviced vacant land, plus 717 unserviced acres, currently sit in private hands, mostly in the northwest industrial area.
To compare, the County of Brant – which recently welcomed an 82-acre Adidas Canada distribution centre that will create 260 jobs – has 171 serviced acres, plus 112 unserviced acres.
Brantford does outpace Waterloo and Hamilton in terms of available serviced land, but St. Thomas and Woodstock double and triple Brantford’s total, respectively.
Many of Brantford’s serviced lots are irregularly shaped due to natural features like waterways, making them less attractive to buyers, Chowhan said.
The economic development advisory committee identified 13 industrial projects worth a total of $2.07 billion and representing 2,940 jobs that went to neighbouring municipalities instead of Brantford.
“The businesses that needed 40 acres or more had no place to build here,” Chowhan said. “By not having serviced employment land available in our community, these are the kind of (development) opportunities we’re missing out on.”
Chowhan said the city should work toward having 300 acres of serviced land made available for sale over the next five to 10 years to accommodate future population growth. While buying up vacant industrial land would require upfront investment by the city, the committee says the long-term economic benefits outweigh the initial cost.
Lowering or even eliminating development costs would help attract new investment, but Chowhan believes the lost revenue would hurt the city’s efforts to retain existing businesses and encourage growth.
Instead, the committee calls for lower overall taxes “that don’t show preference to new entrants but target the entire industrial base.”
The potential for native protests is often cited as a deterrent to development, but Chowhan said the city should play up the positives.
“Lots of development happens in Brantford every day,” he said. “Not everything gets protested.
“So we focus on encouraging the conditions to attract and retain investment in Brantford.”