By Joel Wittnebel/The Oshawa Express
Oshawa is booming.
Councillors have said it, the mayor has said it, press releases from the city celebrate the record-breaking building permits, and it can even be seen driving across the city.
Houses are sprouting up in the north end faster than summer flowers and new businesses seem to appear every few weeks.
However, one sector hangs on the fringe.
Industrial land sales are celebrated along with the massive surge in residential, institutional and commercial projects, but it only seems to hang on the edge of the frame, like the child sneaking into the photo with the gold and silver medalist with a participation ribbon pinned to his shirt.
In September of last year, industrial building permits netted the city $8.996 million. No small sum, but it’s dwarfed by the more than $151 million in residential permits and more than $19.5 million in governmental and institutional permits.
The same numbers showed last month when the city boasted the breaking of building permit records only six months into 2015, and there was industrial, again, hanging on the fringe.
In July, $289.9 million in residential permits and $13.7 million in institutional permits once again shadowed the $9.8 million in industrial.
The only number lagging this time around was a dip in commercial sales, which fell just short of industrial at $9.4 million.
For the industrial sector, the raging residential boom is a pipedream, and for the city, the work to fill the big swaths of vacant industrial land in Oshawa is a constant effort.
The lay of the land
Oshawa has a patchwork of industrial land situated within its boundaries.
According to the city’s Industrial Land Inventory, the land covers approximately 2,738 acres, divided into 13 different industrial areas.
These areas vary in size from the large, 1,073-acre Stevenson Industrial Area, to the small Somerville/Russett Industrial Area, which occupies fewer than nine acres.
Of these 13 areas, all of them are at varying levels of occupation.
Two are nearly at capacity, including the former PPG Industrial Area and Stevenson, which sit at 85 and 87 per cent occupation respectively.
Several sit around the three quarter occupation mark, including the Farewell Industrial Park at 74 per cent and the Airport North Field Industrial Area at 72 per cent.
The Colonel Sam Business Park and Harbour Industrial area both hover around the halfway point.
In total, approximately 1,018 acres of Oshawa’s industrial land sits vacant. This includes the Northwood, West and East Wind Field and Kedron Industrial Areas, which sit empty.
Now, vacant industrial land is not considered a detriment – a healthy supply of vacant land can be seen as a doorway to opportunity to bring in new business.
In the economic development world, cities should aim to have a supply of industrial land to last about 18 years, according to a city report.
Over the past 10 years in Oshawa, a little fewer than 12 acres of land gets scooped up each year. With that rate in mind, Oshawa has enough industrial land to last not just 18 years, but 86.
For Cindy Symons-Milroy, the city’s director of economic development, that number can be a little misleading.
“It doesn’t paint the true picture of the industrial land requirements we have in the city,” she says.
The true picture being that the majority of this vacant land is not serviced, and bringing water and sewage to these sites is a cost many developers are not willing to front.
In 2014, of the more than 1,000 acres of vacant land, only about 215 of it was pre-zoned and fully serviced.
Along with the lack of services, which need to be coordinated with the region, the city faces other issues when trying to sell parcels of land to developers, the largest being mainly size, as nearly half of Oshawa’s pre-zoned, serviced plots are less than two acres in size.
“Part of the reason why we have certain parcels of land is because they’re not appropriate for development,” Symons-Milroy says. “So they are too small, in some cases, for the kinds of inquiries that we’re dealing with.
“Some of the inquiries that we get, we just can’t even look at because we do not have the land available for them,” she adds.
However, Mayor John Henry says he is not discouraged, claiming the city is open to meet with all developers at any time because Oshawa has something many cities in the GTA do not; space.
“The other areas around Toronto are built out. We have all this industrial land along the 407 corridor…but more importantly we’ve got lands around the university and college,” he says. “We’ve got all these great pieces to the puzzle and now we’re just starting to build that puzzle and it’s exciting.”
Drawing in development
Previously, cities could rely on their empty slates of land to draw development. However, the business of drawing these developers has changed from simply the offer of available land to the offer of incentives and perks.
“In today’s employment market, you have to offer more to a corporation that is thinking of locating than just appropriately zoned land and water and sewer,” says Councillor John Aker, the chair of the city’s development services committee.
This change has morphed the economic development department into quasi-sales people for the city, undertaking outgoing marketing efforts, talking with realtors and corporations who are looking to find new locations.
The city also works with a lead-generating firm, which helps the city find possible opportunities to bring new development to Oshawa.
The city must also work with the owners of the land, as, under the Region of Durham Act, the city is not allowed to own industrial land.
When marketing Oshawa to the world, Symons-Milroy says her department focuses on five key sectors: advanced manufacturing, health and bioscience, energy, multimodal logistics and transportation and IT.
However, they will take what they can get, she says.
“When we’re going out and marketing Oshawa externally to site selectors and corporate realtors and others, those are the key sectors that we’re pursuing. It doesn’t mean that if someone was to come in or want to locate in Oshawa that wasn’t in one of our key sectors, that we would say, ‘Sorry, we don’t do that.’ We would certainly welcome them with open arms and work with them to help them come here,” she says.
And for Aker, he’s working to make that process a little easier.
Oshawa’s largest parcel of vacant land is the Northwood Industrial Park – only eight per cent of its approximately 647 acres is occupied.
Aker is working with staff to introduce a community improvement plan (CIP) to the area. A CIP could potentially offer tax breaks or other incentives for developers who choose to use the land.
Aker says the first step will to be rezone a chunk of the land, as well as working with the region to get services up there.
“Northwoods is not serviced, but the Region of Durham, I believe, in my discussions with the commissioner of finance and the commissioner of public works, would consider water and sewer going up Stevenson Road and servicing that area,” he says.
The city also has CIPs in place for areas in the downtown, as well as along the Simcoe Street North corridor near the university. How much these incentives work to attract developers in the end is up for debate.
For Northwood, Symons-Milroy says the bottom line will be to have the land serviced, not a CIP, but the incentives surely won’t hinder the process.
“If they make a difference in the bottom line to an industry, then they’re helpful,” she says.
Aker says he believes the CIPs offer council and the city a better opportunity to grasp how an area is developing over time.
“In the strategies the City of Oshawa have, we may not always be successful,” he says. “But I think we get a good grade on what’s happening with the downtown, we get a good grade on what’s happening with our cooperation with the colleges and universities.”
The industrial land vacancy has been labeled a top priority of council, according to Aker.
And filling the gap is not only about brining more businesses to the city.
As the north end construction rages on, more people will relocate to the city, and Aker says once the industrial land starts to be utilized, more of these people will have places to work within the city.
“At the end, we have to make sure that we have employment and careers available for our citizens at the end of this construction boom, not just homes,” he says.