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"R&D key to revitalizing, transforming region"

This article was published in The Windsor Star on November 21, 2007.
Written by Frank McKenna.

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There is no need to reinvent the wheel to revitalize Windsor-Essex. This is a region with great assets and extraordinary potential.

Windsor has rightfully earned the title "automotive capital of Canada." To call this sector an economic engine is an understatement. It employs close to 25 per cent of the entire workforce. And it continues to inject new investments into the region, more than $800 million by recent accounts.

The sector is undergoing structural changes, which will have a profound impact on the way manufacturers operate. For instance, there's talk in the industry about the "lights out" assembly plant, which relies solely on automated systems. For a community that has already felt the brunt of change, such developments can sound unsettling.

Manufacturers will always appreciate the value of human input. But future contributions will increasingly be based on their ingenuity. Indeed, for any Canadian manufacturer, the hallmark for future success is to employ highly skilled workers in a high-tech environment.

This newspaper has quoted experts who acknowledge that the sector's new competitive advantage must be forged by innovations in design, engineering and manufacturing, along with more sophisticated products and services. I agree. Moving up the manufacturing value chain is essential.

Research and development will play a central role in this transformation. This bodes well for Windsor-Essex. Significant investments are already being made by the private and public sector in this region. The Big Three are traditionally major spenders, which helps explain why Windsor is ranked ninth overall for corporate spending in R&D.

The University of Windsor and St. Clair College are playing a central role through a number of research initiatives, transforming promising ideas into profitable innovations.

All this to say Windsor-Essex has long been recognized as a centre with automotive manufacturing experience, but research and development activities ensure it can be known as a centre with automotive manufacturing expertise.

The post-secondary institutions will also play a critical role in diversifying the region's mix of economic assets, the second route leaders must pursue.

I'm encouraged to know ground has been broken for a medical school and that a new engineering centre is in the works. Both will act as an important pipeline for knowledge workers, with the potential to enhance existing services and create new ones. So, too, will the Odette School hone entrepreneurial and managerial skills.

All these efforts will help enhance and expand the burgeoning entertainment and accommodation; health; education; agriculture, and wholesale and retail sectors. Tellingly, the service sector has created more than 13,000 jobs in the past four years.

This job boom speaks to the region's overall appeal as an investment destination, and helps explain why Windsor has drawn accolades internationally as a "city of the future" and ranked ahead of Canadian cities such as London, Toronto, Montreal and Calgary as a place to do business.

With this in mind, one might expect an elevated view of Windsor in the marketplace. Yet some still perceive it as just a border town.

Windsor is a vital continental hub, responsible for close to one-third of all trade between Canada and the U.S.

Globalization will only accentuate its strategic importance. Indeed, the mayor has quite rightly described Windsor "at the centre of an integrated trade axis that extends beyond North America." For this reason alone, Windsor's success is inextricably linked to our nation's success.

Yet greater efforts are required to tell the Windsor-Essex story. For instance, few outside of the region probably know just how diverse the local population is, thanks to inflows of new Canadians. Such knowledge may encourage more foreign students to attend school and potentially stay in the region upon graduation. That's good for the economy and community life. Recently, city council agreed to kick $50,000 into a marketing campaign, largely funded by a single private sector investor. The municipal fund was matched equally by the County of Essex. But success will demand a concerted and sustained effort by all interested stakeholders to project a desirable image.

That's certainly one of the key lessons I learned as premier. We worked hard to promote cities like Moncton in order to diversify its economy. At the time, it was reeling from job losses. We job prospected relentlessly, with the aim of conveying the community's hunger for new business.

All the hard work paid off. Moncton's unemployment rate has dropped by six percentage points since the early 1990s.

I am confident Windsor-Essex can experience similar success. In many regards, it starts from a position of strength. It is home to an increasingly innovative automotive sector, and a growing number of services. Fostering both will be necessary to arrive at the desirable destination of long-term growth and prosperity.


Executive Headshot :  Frank McKenna
Frank McKenna
Deputy Chair
TD Bank Group

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