The brightest days for Windsor are ahead – Dilkens reflects on past year, looks forward to 2023

Taylor Campbell/The Windsor Star

From the largest automotive investment in Canadian history and progress on a national urban park to lingering pandemic woes and the Ambassador Bridge blockade, 2022 has been a rollercoaster of highs and lows in Windsor.

To reflect on this year’s challenges and achievements and to share his goals for the city in 2023, Mayor Drew Dilkens sat down with the Star in his office boardroom where a map of Windsor covered the wall behind him.

“Coming out of COVID, I think the community is just happier,” he said. “They saw the end of lockdowns, and certainly the signal that there’s no desire to go back there. People feel free again.

“It was a tough two years, and it was a tough start of the year, even with COVID and the pressures caused by the pandemic and the rules and restrictions.”

The provincial government gradually lifted its remaining public health measures — namely gathering limits, capacity limits for businesses, and proof of vaccination requirements — in the first three months of the year. But for some, those restrictions couldn’t be removed fast enough.

In February, a group of locals opposed to COVID-19 mandates and inspired by the long-lasting Freedom Convoy occupation in Ottawa blocked the Ambassador Bridge as a form of protest. An estimated $3.9 billion in trade activity was halted in the six days it took Windsor police and law enforcement partners to dismantle the blockade.

“It’s one of those lingering COVID events that had a huge impact in a very short period of time,” said Dilkens. “That type of disruption only served to disadvantage local families here.”

All levels of government have a “completely shared interest” to make sure such a border disruption never happens again, Dilkens said.

Other pandemic impacts persist. Financially, the city is not yet “out of the woods” and remains on the hook for several COVID-related expenses most other municipalities don’t have to deal with.

In normal times, the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel and Windsor International Airport each pay the city $1 million a year in dividences — “$2 million a year (total) … we don’t have to collect from taxpayers,” Dilkens said.

Caesars Windsor was forced to close multiple times amid COVID restrictions and has yet to return to pre-pandemic operating levels. Dilkens estimated that about 1,000 employees of the city’s largest tourist attraction have not been called back to work.

“There are challenges that are broad-based across every business throughout the city that impact the return to normal, but all the signs are at least positive. We see progress happening, which is great.”

But the year wasn’t all bad. In March, city officials were joined by representatives from Stellantis and LG Energy Solution to announce a $5-billion electric vehicle battery plant at Banwell Road and E. C. Row Avenue: the largest automotive investment in Canadian history.

The factory, which has since been named NextStar Energy Inc., is expected to begin operation in 2024 and employ more than 2,500 people.

“It’s an exciting time,” Dilkens said. “It is a generational investment. It is a massive investment in terms of dollars, in terms of employment. Now we’re on to the supply chain.”

Windsor has since secured a $60-million manufacturing facility — part of the battery plant supply chain — on airport land that will employ 300 people. Dilkens and Invest WindsorEssex made a trip to South Korea to attract more supply chain partners in December.

Gesturing towards Sandwich South lands on the map behind him, Dilkens said developing a large section already designated as “employment land” to entice more economic investment is a priority for him in the years to come.

“Sandwich South is the area where you’re going to see big development in the city: housing, which we need, institutional for the (new regional acute care) hospital, which we need, and then industrial, which we’re out of,” he said. “We have no other land in the City of Windsor for that type of opportunity. We need to create it because that’s the only way we’re going to benefit from hosting (the new Gordie Howe International Bridge).”

Also high on his list of goals is moving forward with a permanent Housing and Homelessness Help Hub (H4) with wraparound services and transitional housing to address homelessness and addiction issues.

“It is an essential thing that we have to deliver,” Dilkens said. “So many of the other plans that we have are held back by, if nothing else, the impression of a lack of safety caused by the mental health and addiction crisis that we are experiencing.”

To tackle the housing crisis, city hall staff are working to “streamline” the planning and development process, keeping in mind the province’s expectation that 13,000 homes be built in Windsor in the next decade.

Dilkens said the idea is to “remove the red tape” so more building applications can be approved, “and have the private sector do what they’re best at, which is building housing — the city doesn’t build houses.”

Looking ahead to 2023, Dilkens has his sights set on several other projects that are already in motion, including a new central branch for the Windsor Public Library; implementing $100 million in improvements to Transit Windsor; continuing with neighbourhood theming and districting projects; and supporting the creation of a national urban park in Windsor.

“I really believe the brightest days for Windsor are ahead. I’m excited by what’s happening, but I’m also excited by what’s coming,” Dilkens said.