Transportation and logistics companies have benefited from the widespread changes brought about by the pandemic and are expanding at significant rates, regional officials say.
While many people tend to view these companies as some of the worst environmental offenders, in fact, the businesses tend to be environmentally conscious, pay above-average wages and build sophisticated and technologically advanced operations.
Bob Peters leads logistics efforts for the Ontario East Economic Development Commission, which promotes Eastern Ontario as a centre for investment and business growth. He’s also the manager of economic development for the City of Cornwall.
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As Peters explains, transportation and logistics companies are a vital link — but an often overlooked one — in Eastern Ontario’s supply chain.
“In fact, some of our most advanced technology and AI systems can be found in distribution centres, including robotics, voice-activated commands and all sorts of wonderful stuff,” Peters says. “And so you have a sector that is extremely advanced, progressive, environmentally friendly and, in many cases, a major employer.”
Transportation by road remains a primary way of moving goods. In Eastern Ontario, Hwy. 401 takes a lot of that traffic.
“Hwy. 401 clearly is that key transportation corridor,” says Peters. “The competitive advantages of businesses locating in the Cornwall area is primarily transportation and its proximity to major markets.”
For the logistics sector, every kilometre a company is away from the Hwy. 401 corridor is measured in time and money.
“There’s a significant advantage to distribution centres, shipping companies and the companies that support them of clustering along nodes along Hwy. 401,” says Peters.
A scan of recent headlines shows major investments in logistics and transportation in the region, with a multimodal logistics village under development near Cornwall; Wills Transfer Ltd. investing in new warehousing facilities in Ingleside; and Minimax Express completing the acquisition of Snowbird Transportation Systems Ltd., a family business that has operated in Hamilton for 40 years.
Strader Ferris International, meanwhile, launched a company called MyUSaddress, a consumer-focused company that allows cross-border shoppers to have goods shipped to an Ogdensburg address and then have the packages customs-cleared and delivered.
Amazon has built two fulfilment centres near Ottawa — one 450,000-square-foot space in Barrhaven and another with one million square feet in Navan. Giant Tiger has distribution centres in Brockville, another in Johnstown and a third in Edwardsburgh Cardinal.
According to Peters, the attractiveness of Eastern Ontario to these companies is the quality of the highway network and the fact that the region’s municipalities have invested in making sure land is available.
But there are other aspects to the transportation and logistics sector in Eastern Ontario.
The region has 15 municipal airports and an international airport in Ottawa, as well as a deepwater port in Johnstown. The latter is an important destination for rail, truck and vessel shipping and receives salt, grains, aggregate and project cargo, or bulky pieces of equipment. The port offers easy access to Kingston, Cornwall, Ottawa and New York state.
“It is our deepwater port in Eastern Ontario (and it) continues to be significant for aggregates and farm products,” says Ann Weir, economic development manager with the United Counties of Leeds and Grenville. “And they are continuing to expand their product base as well with specialty goods and looking at other areas for expansion.”
There’s also a port in Cornwall.
“Historically, the St. Lawrence Seaway has been a significant transportation corridor for the movement of goods throughout Central Canada and Eastern Ontario and including Cornwall, which is lucky enough to have a harbour,” Peters says. He adds that the majority of finished goods being shipped by sea tend to land at a port either in Halifax or Montreal and are then put on a truck.
Peters said rail is also important as it connects transportation systems and it provides efficient transportation of goods over longer distances.
“In Cornwall, we’re very fortunate to be on all three of those super corridors,” he says.
There’s rail service in Leeds Grenville, Weir says, through the Canadian Rail Equipment Works and Services Inc. based in Johnstown, which offers everything from railcar storage, transloading, switching and track maintenance.
In Renfrew County, a rail system runs between Arnprior and Ottawa. Currently, it’s operated by CN. An Arnprior company called Nylene Canada ULC owns the rail, while the City of Ottawa owns the land, explains David Wybou, business development officer with the county. He says Nylene would welcome other businesses interested in using the rail.
Renfrew County is also seeing an extension of Hwy. 417 from Arnprior to three kilometres past the town of Renfrew. The last time the highway was extended, Wybou says, it created a real estate boom and a mini retail boom in the area with coffee shops, clothing shops, restaurants and professional and medical services opening.
“Even accounting and legal firms have been moving out here and extending their reach,” he says.
Of course, labour is a constant part of the puzzle. Many companies are trying creative approaches to the tight labour market. Minimax Express started training prospective drivers and paying them while they train. So far, it has hired 14 new drivers this way.
St. Lawrence College has created a logistics graduate course and programming and a mechanics skilled trades program in Cornwall.
As Peters points out, because logistics trades are increasingly technical, logistics centres are no longer looking for forklift operators, but instead electrical mechanical technicians.
“The skill level has gone (up) and they’ve always paid 30 per cent above average wage,” he says. “So this is a good sector with good careers.”