Windsor preparing large swath of airport land for economic development

Taylor Campbell/The Windsor Star

The City of Windsor is easing the way for supply chain companies looking to set up shop near the NextStar battery plant by preparing a large swath of land for future growth.

City council’s development committee this week voted to give “employment land” designation to nearly 200 hectares of city-owned property — the equivalent of more than 480 football fields — near the airport, permitting industrial and business development there.

The move, which senior administrators described as a “housekeeping matter,” will expedite economic development on the land north of County Road 42 generally between the 8th and 9th Concession Roads.

“We are prepping the land that we have available today for development opportunities that are coming our way today,” Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens told the Star.

“We’re frankly quite blessed to have this option available to us. Otherwise, we would have to forgo any of this supply chain that we have coming to the City of Windsor. They would have to go somewhere else.”

According to a city staff report on the matter, the land’s ownership was transferred from Transport Canada to the City of Windsor in 1998. The transfer included the airport area and “significant surplus land.”

In 2003, the land and surrounding area were transferred from the Town of Tecumseh to the City of Windsor, the report said. Four years later, council voted to designate the majority of the land as a “future employment area,” earmarking it for the economic development happening today.

Three woodlots on the land designated as “natural heritage” and considered provincially significant wetlands will remain protected under the recent land designation change.

As a condition of the city owning the airport lands, it can lease out sections but never sell the property.

“We are in the final strokes of several different offers with several different companies to take 50 or 60 acres to make multimillion-dollar investments in the City of Windsor that would employ hundreds of people,” Dilkens said.

The targeted companies include those having a direct connection to the NextStar battery factory, the mayor said. They also see a benefit in being close to the United States and near St. Thomas, where Volkswagen is also building a large-scale electric vehicle battery plant.

“We’ve got road infrastructure, we’ve got a new bridge being built, and there’s just a lot of excitement here and a lot of interest in the community the likes of which we haven’t seen for a long time.”

Greg Atkinson, manager of development and deputy city planner, said land nearest to County Road 42 and the 9th Concession — the site of the new regional acute care hospital — will be zoned for light industrial use. Land further from the hospital will allow for heavier industrial use.

“Applying that land use designation and zoning is the first step because no one’s going to be interested in our land if they’re not able to actually build anything,” Atkinson said.

“We’re taking the steps to put the city in a position to be able to react in real-time when we do get investment inquiries.”

The plan is to allow development in phases, depending on how much the city’s existing infrastructure can accommodate. As County Road 42 expands and infrastructure extends into the airport land, the city will see more development.

Jelena Payne, the city’s commissioner of economic development and innovation, said the goal is to ensure all of the land is “utilized with investments, and that will take time.”

“The landscape of Windsor is changing, whether it’s from intensification and housing or industry growth and expansion,” Payne said.

In the past, when investors came to Windsor to build, projects would take years to come to fruition, Payne said. Now, investors want to sign agreements only a “few short months” after initial conversations.

“We are being asked to respond to the speed of international business,” she said. “By ensuring these lands are identified and zoned properly and then serviced, you can turn these investments around much faster, and ensure that investment comes to Windsor, not down the road or across the river.”

South Korean company DongShin Motech is building an aluminum casings plant on 12 acres of land west of Wheelton Drive at the airport. The plant was originally expected to be a $60-million to $90-million, 170,000-square-foot facility creating about 300 jobs, but there is reportedly already talk of expansion.

Dilkens said development on the airport lands will not prevent any future expansion of Windsor International Airport, should the city ever decide to do so.