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Not all gloom and doom for Oshawa’s economy

By Dave Flaherty/The Oshawa Express

Despite concerns surrounding the impending closure of the GM plant, the city’s economic development head says it’s not all gloomy news for Oshawa’s economy.

Kyle Benham, director of economic development services, said the city’s economy has been “making a lot of noise.”

“We’ve really been doing quite well over the last five years,” he says.

There are roughly 70,000 jobs across the city, an increase of 2.8 per cent from last year and 10.3 per cent over the past five.

In addition, Oshawa is home to approximately 10,600 businesses, which represents a 39 per cent increase from 2014.

“This is very positive change,” Benham told members of the development services committee at the latest meeting.

The Conference Board of Canada ranked Oshawa as one of the most diverse economies in the country last year, and Benham says it has seen continuing variation over recent years.

The health care is the dominant sector in the city, representing 18 per cent of all jobs.

Education and manufacturing represent large sections as well.

Speaking on the “elephant in the room,” the planned GM closure, Benham said while it will no doubt impact the city, the company plays a “much smaller role” in Oshawa’s economy than in the past.

In the past 10 years, GM’s Oshawa workforce has diminished from 8,300 to 2,500, now representing about 3.6 per cent of the city’s employment total.

Benham says the situation has put a great deal of national and international focus on Oshawa.

He believes it is a chance for the city to shed its reputation as a “single-sector economy.”

However, he does concede the General Motors announcement did create some caution from potential investors.

“We’ve been trying to communicate with companies and their financiers that the GM effect is not that bad,” he told the committee.

Ward 2 regional councillor Tito-Dante Marimpietri suggested hosting a “summit” with “higher ups” in the banking industry to get this message across.

Benham noted he had met with officials from TD Bank earlier that day, and the company had formed a ‘local crisis team’ to relay a similar message to senior officials.

There are still some challenges for the city to overcome.

Oshawa has a distinct lack of marketable employment lands, Benham says.

In all, the city has only about 90 acres, with most being pockets of one to five acres.

Despite having interest from larger companies, Benham says, “quite frankly, we have nowhere to put them.”

Another obstacle facing the economy is an imbalance between available jobs and the skill sets of workers.

Benham said there are approximately 20,000 Oshawa residents who go to work in other communities every day.

Despite the success of some revitalization projects, the downtown core has “relatively high vacancy rates.”

The retail vacancy rate in downtown is 11 per cent, while the overall rate is 30 per cent.

Benham predicts the role of the city’s downtown will be more important than in the past.

He said the younger workforce coming into Oshawa is seeking a more “urban experience.”

Oshawa has the most urban downtown “east of Yonge Street” he said, and the city should focus on a wider range of events.

“The thing that stands out is we are going have 6,000 more people living there,” Benham says.

Other keys to Oshawa’s economy include the province opening up employment lands around Highway 407 for development, and engaging postsecondary institutions to align programming with local objectives.

Benham did note that working with Durham College, UOIT and Trent University has been one of the better experiences he’s had.

“I think they get it,” he said.

Ward 5 city councillor John Gray questioned whether the Seaton development in Pickering and its related growth for that city could be seen as a “threat”.

Benham said there is “more than enough for all” communities in Durham, but did warn Pickering and Whitby would have a lot more land becoming available, so Oshawa should take advantage of the focus it is receiving.

Gray wants the city to be proactive in encouraging General Motors to plan for any of its surplus lands if the plant closes.

“My biggest fear is the lands and buildings sit foul…it’d be a huge disservice to the community,” he said.

Brian Nicholson, regional councillor for Ward 5, appealed that south Oshawa not be left out of the city’s economic planning.

Benham noted investors have bought up parcels of land in the city’s south in anticipation of the Lakeshore East GO expansion.

But Nicholson said they’ve “been waiting 20 years” for that project, and perhaps improvements should be made before development begins.