How locals helped bring a struggling Ontario community back to life

In the early 2000s, Wallaceburg was hit by an economic downturn. Now, local officials say, its economy is thriving — and that’s thanks partly to grassroots efforts
By Mary Baxter - Published on June 25, 2019
Wallaceburg welcome sign
Wallaceburg, a community in Chatham-Kent, is located about 50 kilometres south of Sarnia and is home to more than 10,000 people. (Mary Baxter)

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News cameras capture two green barges as they approach Wallaceburg, roughly 50 kilometres south of Sarnia. The arrivals are greeted by air horns, sirens, and applause. It’s June 2009, and residents have lined up to welcome the flat-hulled ships, which had travelled up from Lake St. Clair and then along the Sydenham River. The ships are bringing fertilizer from Russia to the Farmers of North America, a farming-supply company that recently opened a facility nearby. They’re the first large commercial craft to enter the inland port in three years and among only a handful of commercial vessels to use it since the 1980s.

In the decade prior, Wallaceburg, a community in Chatham-Kent, had been hit by a severe economic downturn that brought factory closures, job cuts, and population displacement. The local economy, until then largely reliant on the auto industry, had cratered — the town of 10,000 people lost 3,800 jobs. Around town, resident Karen Debergh says, the common greeting then wasn’t “How are you?” It was “Are you working? Do you have a job?” But, on this day, there is optimism. “These are two barges now, and, hopefully, lots more to come,” Randy Furlan, a spokesperson for Farmers of North America, tells the cameras.

But only two more barges would dock in Wallaceburg in the coming years. It can be hard for smaller communities to recover from economic depressions: in tough times, says Tara Vinodrai, a professor of development at the University of Waterloo, businesses tend to gravitate toward the skilled workforce and infrastructure of larger cities. “The challenges are substantial,” she notes, “particularly for small places.”

Ten years later, though, Wallaceburg’s economy is thriving, local officials say. Stuart McFadden, the director of economic development services for Chatham-Kent, points to the docking of the barges as a galvanizing moment: “We proved that we could do it.”   

There aren’t many firm facts to back up such claims. That’s because persistent data gaps make it difficult to measure economic activity in smaller rural communities, explains Valencia Gaspard, president of the Canadian Rural Revitalization Foundation. Unemployment rates, she says, don’t reflect how many people in a community may be precariously employed: “What we know in rural places is that, yes, you may not be unemployed, but, quite frequently, the measures of being precariously employed in a rural place are more adverse than being unemployed.” And Wallaceburg doesn’t collect community-specific data on such things as industry growth rates. (Gaspard’s foundation, which coordinates research on rural revitalization, is completing a report that will ask the federal government to help with data collection.)

There is though, anecdotal evidence. Fifty-eight-year-old Debergh, the president of Wallaceburg’s Chamber of Commerce, says that, 40 years ago, factories juggled shift times to avoid traffic jams, and workers simply crossed the street when they wanted a new job. “It’s almost getting back to this,” she says, adding that when her husband, a machinist, dropped his resumé off at a local plant a few years ago, “they literally chased after him” as he was pulling out of the parking lot.

So how did Wallaceberg turn its fortunes around? The process began in early 2007, when residents pushed Chatham-Kent council to establish a Wallaceburg community council — a steering committee of local residents and city staff — to address the community’s economic problems. By May, the council had obtained provincial and municipal grants amounting to $100,000 per year over three years. It then established the Wallaceburg Community Task Force, a nine-person team of residents with a mandate to develop and implement an economic-recovery plan.

It hired McFadden, who had just sold his grocery store, as the task force’s manager. Bill Currier, a locally born chiropractor, was chosen as its chair. The rest of the group was made up of engaged residents, including a local councillor, an electrician, an urban planner, a funeral director, and a farmer. It was the first time, McFadden says, that a local grassroots group had been given this much authority — and the first time that government and business leaders had worked together so closely.  “Sometimes, it got very interesting, and [the residents] were able to get [the task force] to move at the speed of business,” he says. “That was our attitude.” 

Bill Currie
Bill Currier, a locally born chiropractor, served as chair of the Wallaceburg Community Task Force. (Mary Baxter)

But there was a learning curve. “We thought we'd just go and get industry,” Currier says. “We quickly learned that, to get industry, you have to have other things to attract them.” So they conducted studies, including labour and SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analyses, to figure out what they had and what they needed.

There was the good: plenty of industrial buildings for cheap, a short drive to the Canada–United States border, a skilled but underutilized workforce, access to Lake St. Clair, a community pool, and an arena. There was also the bad: There was no community centre. The vacant factories were falling into disrepair. The port was inaccessible to large craft. Residents’ employable skills related mostly to machining.

And there was a prevailing sense of negativity. Early in the process, one company scout stopped by McFadden’s office to tell him that he had overheard locals in a coffee shop trashing the town. It was a sign, he said, that his business might be better placed elsewhere. “The psychology of failure that places take on, that can be an actual barrier [to economic recovery],” says Vinodrai.

The task force got to work. In public meetings and newspaper editorials, members promoted the benefits of Wallaceburg. To help preserve the factory infrastructure, the electrical contractor on the team bought three vacant industrial buildings. According to McFadden, the task force worked with Chatham-Kent to relieve the “close to $1 million” still owed by the previous owner in back taxes. “What we did is we found a creative way to relieve the taxes from the buildings, and we put the taxes onto a vacant parcel of property,” says McFadden. “The people who wrote the laws probably didn't intend them to be used the way that we used them, but we interpreted [them] in a different way.”

The team chased leads, making phone calls to large companies such as Shell Canada. Currier hosted real-estate agents in a private suite at a Toronto Blue Jays game, introducing them to representatives from Chatham-Kent’s economic-development department. It was supposed to be a purely social event, but he brought material about Wallaceburg anyway. “They were drinking our beer and eating our hot dogs, so the least they could do is look,” he recalls saying to a staff member.

The task force decided early on to focus on small businesses in hopes of developing a diverse economy. One morning, a representative from Alberta-based Rulmeca Canada, a mining-equipment manufacturer, called the Wallaceburg Chamber of Commerce to inquire about the area. The office manager quickly brought the information to McFadden. By 2010, Rulmeca had opened a facility in one of the previously vacant factories, creating 88 jobs. The task force worked with municipal, provincial, and federal governments to dredge the river so that it could once again allow passage for barges.

There were disappointments. The community was unable to bring back rail service. At one point, the task force thought it had secured $8.6 million from the province for a new community centre, but the funding fell through. “We were devastated,” Currier says.

In 2010, the task force’s funding dried up, and it disbanded. So the Wallaceburg and District Chamber of Commerce and Chatham-Kent’s economic-development department — which McFadden subsequently joined — took up the cause.

Today, according to Currier, nearly all of Wallaceburg’s commercial buildings are occupied. Currier says that only one major facility had to be demolished.

According to Vinodrai, Wallaceburg’s success is unusual: when manufacturing declines in rural areas, she notes, turnarounds typically involve transitioning to another economic driver, such as culinary tourism or green technology. In this case, recovery was likely aided by the community’s proximity to major cities and to other industrial hubs, she says, adding that it can be difficult to quantify the effects of citizen-led efforts: “It’s hard to say, ‘We did X, and this happened.’”  

Debergh hopes that the community will be able to create more opportunities for unskilled employment. This fall, a new Whyte’s Foods pickle plant is set to open — the company plans eventually to employ 100 people.

“You always think [a downturn] isn’t going to happen to you — it's happening to the other towns, and then when it happens, it happens hard,” Debergh says. “But I think the lesson, too, is that you can overcome it.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting southwestern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of faculty and students from Western University’s Faculty of Information and Media Studies.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled Bill Currier​​​​​​​'s surname. TVO.org regrets the error.

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