South Sandwich lands key to Windsor’s economic future: Dilkens

Brian MacLeod/The Windsor Star

Windsor must think beyond its big projects and “prepare for the unimaginable” to take full advantage of the economic opportunities that lie ahead, Mayor Drew Dilkens said Tuesday.

Speaking at the first Windsor-Essex Regional Chamber of Commerce mayor’s luncheon in nine years, more than 430 business and community leaders at the sold-out St. Clair Centre for the Arts event heard Dilkens draw on Hiram Walker’s legacy in building the community of Walkerville around his distillery business.

“Hiram needed to think bigger than the main goal that was in front of him,” Dilkens said. “He had something special, something unique, and he needed to make it soar … make it grow … make it matter … make it known.”

Dilkens spent the majority of his address arguing for investment to service the Sandwich South industrial lands to draw more private investment.

During the 2022 municipal election campaign, Dilkens stressed the need to service these lands. Though some consider such a move “sprawl,” there is not enough land elsewhere in the region to accommodate projected growth, he said.

“Take a look at any map of the region and this solution becomes plainly obvious.”

The lands south of Windsor International Airport will host Windsor-Essex’s new acute-care hospital. As well, thousands of homes are already planned for this area and the 401 to the south provides perfect access to Ontario’s main economic corridor, he said.

Referring to the economic potential offered by the $5-billion NextStar EV battery plant and the $6-billion Gordie Howe Bridge, both under construction, Dilkens said Windsor must consider how it will reap the benefits of these investments.

“The only luck we are going to have is the luck we’re prepared to create.”

That luck comes from “having the closest and largest industrial park on the Canadian side of the U.S.-Canada border,” he said.

Such vision will require support from higher levels of government, he said, adding that Premier Doug Ford “understands the ask.”

Dilkens did not put a price on servicing the Sandwich South lands, but he did say it “will be a significant commitment.”

“We cannot let fear of up-front costs threaten our economic future. The up-front investment will position these lands for accelerated growth, which then creates property tax streams in perpetuity that will benefit generations to come.”

Acknowledging how fast the NextStar battery plant is being built on Twin Oaks Drive, Dilkens said, “we need to be ready to operate at the speed of business. If we aren’t, they will simply go elsewhere.”

The city bought the property last year for $45-50 million and leased it to plant owners Stellantis and LG Energy Solution.

“If we do not build out this area, then further job-related growth and development will simply continue outside of the city limits — and most concerningly, across the border in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky,” he said.

Recalling the city’s desperate recessionary times of 16 per cent unemployment and uncertainty about the future of the auto sector, Dilkens said the city now has a chance to secure the future by servicing industrial lands to take advantage of the potential for investment spawned by the NextStar plant and other automotive investments in southern Ontario and across the border in the United States.

“We have already secured the future for thousands of more local workers, and solidified Windsor’s strategic location as the automobility capital of Canada,” Dilkens said. “As the world pivots to EVs, Windsor will be home to the facility that powers it all.”

Still, the Windsor area sits at a “significant disadvantage” because of a shortage of serviced industrial land, he said.

“Business decisions simply can’t wait years for communities to pull things together.”

Dilkens said one of Stellantis’s senior leaders told him that without the city’s contribution and fast action, the plant would have been located elsewhere.

The area is also critical to home-building, Dilkens said, noting the provincial government’s target of 13,000 new homes to be built in Windsor in the next nine years cannot be reached without using the lands south of the airport.

“Our community is at a critical juncture — and the choice before us is really simple: we can build out, and attract new industries to our region. We can build our ‘Great City.’

“Some may say we’re trying to build a field of dreams — ‘if you build it they will come.’ One thing I know for sure, if we don’t build it, they will never come.”

Referencing the myriad other investments in the city by public and private enterprises, including downtown Windsor, recreational facilities and public transit, Dilkens said, “Windsorites in 2040 will look back at this moment, this point in time, and — when done right — they will salute our collective vision and boldness.

“The future in front of us is not too good to be true — it’s real and it’s waiting for us to act.”