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Local economic outlook starting to brighten

Published on

Cathy Dobson

This year is expected to bring some economic growth to Sarnia following a 2015 that was sluggish at best, says the chairman of the Sarnia Lambton Chamber of Commerce.

The Ontario Chamber is projecting the city will grow at a rate of 1.4% in 2016 and another 1% in 2017, Rob Taylor said.

“I feel good about what’s happening in Sarnia-Lambton. We’ve been pretty flat for quite a few years but we may be turning the corner.”

Southwestern Ontario has been hit especially hard by a slump in manufacturing and has posted weak numbers for employment, personal income, consumer spending and exports.

Last year, the Ontario Chamber predicted another “sluggish” year in 2015 for the region.

Cities like Toronto and Kitchener-Waterloo set the pace and led other regions in overall economic growth, while communities like Sarnia took longer to recovery.

Population growth has been nil here and the unemployment rate is 8.3%, among the highest in the province. But new projections suggest that may soon change.

Among the hopeful signs are:

* The opening of the $125 million BioAmber plant in 2015, heralding the emergence of a burgeoning bioindustry in Sarnia;

* Construction of the new $10.3 million Ubiquity plant to prove the manufacturing process of its trademarked SolarBrick technology. If the new plant is successful, it’s possible a $100-million commercial plant could be built in 2018;

* A commitment by Lambton College to build a $42-million expansion in 2016;

* A soaring real estate market that broke 10-year records for six of 12 months in 2015;

* NOVA Chemicals has spent millions on upgrades and could announce a new polyethylene plant;

* Upgrades to Plains Midstream Canada’s natural gas liquids fractionation plant; and

* Purchase of the Bayside Centre by Wilsondale Assets Management, with promises to redevelop the downtown mall and build new condominiums.

“This is going to revitalize our downtown,” said Taylor. “Wilsondale has bought up large chunks of property and is in negotiations with two more key properties.

“I have every reason to believe they will follow through. An organization doesn’t typically make announcements like this if they aren’t going to move ahead,” he said.

The Chamber’s data suggests Wilsondale could generate up to 1,000 construction jobs.

Many of the projects expected to move ahead in 2016 will create construction jobs and, ultimately, a number of permanent jobs. It’s anticipated unemployment will continue to hover around the 8% figure well into 2017 but won’t go up.

Taylor said local businesses could capitalize on the weak loonie by advertising heavily across the border and drawing U.S. customers to Ontario.

A low Canadian dollar may stem the cross-border flow of shoppers to Port Huron and keep retail dollars in Sarnia-Lambton, he added.

“There are always winners and losers when it comes to the loonie. Exporters are doing well and importers are not.”

The economic update from the Ontario Chamber in December indicated Sarnia-Lambton experienced a 2% slump in economic growth last year. The provincewide study predicts most areas of Ontario will see improved economic conditions in the coming year.

It says growth will be driven in part by an uptick in exports, the result of a strong U.S. economy and a low Canadian dollar.

The Ontario Chamber’s economic forecast is considered one of the most comprehensive of the year.

“I think it indicates that the Sarnia-Lambton Economic Partnership, the Western Research Park, Lambton College and the Sarnia-Lambton Business Development Corporation are all doing a good job,” said Taylor.

“There are many positive signs here that our future is pretty bright.”

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