When Stuart McFadden joined the municipal economic development department more than a decade ago, Chatham-Kent was littered with vacant factory space; we were in the depths of a recession that clobbered the automotive industry.
What a difference a dozen years make.
“I’ve been with the municipality for 12 years, and 12 years ago we had an awful lot of available space,” McFadden said of vacant industrial buildings. “Now, we’ve had to turn away businesses because we just don’t have any buildings that meet the needs of the clients.”
McFadden, now head of economic development, said that means little industrial space is vacant, but that is also a problem.
“We deal with some clients who are looking to build new, and we have some land we can sell. But we have some clients who don’t want to build and want to buy a building,” he said. “They have a lot of criteria, but unfortunately, our inventory is extremely low. We need to find a creative way to get some buildings developed that are available and are being developed on speculation. That’s not uncommon. Other communities have adopted that.”
While homebuilders often have showcase homes in new subdivisions built on spec, including here in C-K, it’s not the case for industrial space locally.
As for who is working in the filled factories and other businesses in the municipality, McFadden said it is basically everyone in C-K who wants to work.
“We’re trending in a very positive way. Our unemployment percentage continues to go down. The people who are available to work are working,” he said.
The most recent C-K unemployment figures show a jobless rate of 6.7 per cent, according to economic development’s Andrew Tompsett. A decade ago, the jobless rate was more than double at 13.9 per cent
Today, it is at the point where companies are regularly holding job fairs to try to fill vacancies. As places such as AgMedica, which held a 12-hour job fair this week at the John D. Bradley Centre looking to fill between 50 and 70 positions, toil to fill their needs, McFadden said all levels of employment, from general labour to skilled trades and beyond, are in need.
In terms of skilled trades and the shortage, McFadden said this is not isolated to Chatham-Kent. He encourages parents today to discuss with their children where the best job prospects are for their futures.
“I believe we need to do a better job talking to our kids about available work options and what trades look like as a career. We need to engage them faster and explain the opportunities,” he said. “Try to find a plumber right now. Try to find an electrician. You can have a great career and a wonderful life in these skilled trades positions.”
The jobs are there for people who want them.
“Anybody who wants to work can be working in C-K. We need to expedite resident development so we can invite new people into the community to take advantage of the jobs that are available,” he said.
The real estate market in Chatham-Kent is a seller’s paradise these days, with housing prices up more than 24 per cent from the same time a year ago. But from a buyer’s perspective, it can be challenging.
Homes often are sold in bidding wars and go for more than the asking price. They also can sell in a matter of days.
McFadden said he has encountered times where people wanted to accept a job in C-K, but didn’t because they couldn’t find a place to live.
“I don’t know how many times people have applied for positions here and their challenge is finding a home,” he said.
There is also a less-than-one-per-cent vacancy rate in the rental market locally.
But with increased home building locally, led by Maple City Homes and its 380-unit build in southwestern Chatham, and a slowly growing inventory of homes for sale, we should see some changes coming in the future in terms of housing availability.
The head of economic development has confidence in local homebuilders.
“All developers, what they are doing, they have confidence and are building.
By getting some inventory in the market, it will help take a little pressure off the ballooning prices,” McFadden said. “This will help transition some people out of apartments and into home ownership.”
All that means growth.
“We need to grow our economy, we need to grow our population. What they are doing will help us achieve that,” he said.
McFadden said businesses are still looking to set up shop in C-K, while existing ones work to expand.
“Our communities are filled with great businesses. We’re working on informing people on the positives out there,” he said.
There is growth potential in Blenheim and at the business park on Highway 401, he added, as there are options on several properties and new builds going on at others.
With Enbridge expanding its natural gas capacity in rural C-K, this opens up more greenhouse opportunities as well.
“I think next year is going to be positive,” McFadden said, adding it’s a nice change from what it was like when he started with the municipality. “We were on the ropes. We took a big hit with Navistar and all the companies feeding into them. But slowly and surely, we’re coming off the ropes and we’re swinging back. We’re not a secret anymore.”